How bottled water undermines public trust

Deer hunting where I live, the city of Mount Pleasant, is such a big deal that schools are closed on opening day. Before the decision to close was made, lots of kids skipped and lots of staff – teachers included – called in sick.

Almost all those folks will abide by rules laid down by the Department of Natural Resources, which funds its work through deer tag sales. The DNR performs this important task as part of its mission to manage the state’s wildlife species on behalf of the people who own them: the people of Michigan.

All of the state’s natural resources belong collectively to the people of Michigan. The state is charged with managing those resources as a public trust, a democratizing concept stretching back into English common law. The deer do not run and the water does not flow on behalf of a king or queen, but for the people.

This was why, late last month, environmental groups reacted with horror to a request by Nestle to ramp up production of bottled water at its Evart location, almost tripling it from 150 gallons per minute to 400. They called it the further privatization of Michigan’s water.

Bottled water is not outright privatization, because the bottler has to make its water safe. If you were to drink the water directly from the river the odds that you would become violently ill from a parasite are pretty good.

Technically not, yes; priced fairly to reflect costs of production, that’s a debatable question. On the shelf of the Mount Pleasant Meijer is a two-gallon jug of water bottled in Mecosta County, immediately to the west of Isabella. It costs $2.99. The label suggests it was taken from a pristine mountain lake rather than water from an aquifer that two steps later becomes a swamp.

You can pay for this water, which is clearly intended for home use, or if you’re a customer of the city’s water system you can get 1,000 gallons for $2.42.

Prices charged by municipal systems differ from place to place depending what infrastructure costs users are paying down. Municipal systems are also barred by law from making a profit.

That means much of what customers are paying for with bottled water is the idea that the water is safe. This marketing gimmick is aided by high-profile failures like the Flint water scandal.

It might not be outright privatization, but it’s almost as bad. It is like taking a lakeside property next to a public boat launch and selling access to the lake based primarily on the fiction that your facilities are -- because they are privately owned -- superior to the ones next door. It distances us from the idea that water is commonly owned, by suggesting that we need a private gatekeeper between us and it. And if you need a third-party gatekeeper to access your property, you don’t really own it.

This creates a cycle by which bottled water undermines confidence in municipal water to spark demand, which reduces demand for investment in those systems, which leads to high-profile failures, which stimulates demand for a product marketed on the idea that municipal water is bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This is a dangerous mindset to be in with other regions laboring through droughts. When the rains don’t fall, thirsty eyes invariably turn enviously towards the Great Lakes. For the desert Southwest, the costs of energy and infrastructure to stick a straw in Lake Michigan are right now prohibitive. For the Deep South, the last drought saw plans hatched to divert Great Lakes water down the Mississippi River.

The Great Lakes Compact is supposed to make that kind of thing all but impossible, since a diversion requires approval of all eight Great Lakes governors. But, a controversial diversion was just approved for Waukesha, Wis., and who knows what governors might do if the sale of Great Lakes water could generate revenue to do things like fix roads and improve schools region wide.

A strong appreciation of the public trust doctrine, where it is understood that the people own the deer and the water and the trees and the air, paired with statutory teeth, would prevent that. But, as a legal concept it is tenuous, and the appreciation for it is eroded by the continuing normalization of the idea that the safest water to drink comes out of a bottle.

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Laurie Tata
Fri, 11/18/2016 - 3:52pm
It's helpful to repeat and reinforce that the citizens own & are responsible for these shared resources. Perhaps this may encourage a greater sense of stewardship amongst us to remember that?
Sun, 11/20/2016 - 6:27am
I have not seen any money from the sale of my water, and I have not been asked to transport any of my water out of this region. Think Community.
Sun, 11/20/2016 - 11:11am
Here here. As we enter into a period of ever increasing heat and draught we must expect and prepare for the fact that our Great Lakes fresh water will become the gold of the 21st century. The man made golf courses and Las Vegas' will not allow themselves to whither without a fight.
John S.
Sun, 11/20/2016 - 11:49am
Perhaps the use of bottled water is a form of costly signalling. "Look at me, I've got so much money that I can pay $2.99 for something that comes out of the tap for free. A lot of people like to show others that they are good at spending money on luxuries, both big and small. That's human nature.
chester marx
Mon, 11/21/2016 - 11:32am
Someone has to write the article. Flint and Nestle, a divide in Michigan. Life-v-profit.
Mon, 11/21/2016 - 6:49pm
It is everyone's water and should NOT be sold by a private entity. It's foe everyone. And the sale depletes a natural resource. Why are corp killing our planet?