Nestlé Waters North America on Wednesday announced it will allow a federal agency to monitor its withdrawals of up to 400 gallons of minute in central Michigan for its bottled water.
In an effort to answer questions about whether withdrawals are straining water supplies, the U.S. Geological Survey has begun collecting and publishing data on groundwater and surface water near an Osceola County well that feeds Nestle’s Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Mecosta County, Nestlé said in a press release.
Last year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provoked outrage by approving Nestlé’s request to tap up extract more than 210 million gallons per year from the well. Environmentalists and some local residents fear the increase will strain groundwater supplies and harm wetlands along the Twin and Chippewa Creeks, two Muskegon River tributaries.
“Some have raised questions regarding the impact of our operations on the environment,” Arlene Anderson-Vincent, natural resource manager for Nestlé, said in a statement. “While we are confident in the sustainability of our operations, we have asked a respected, third-party scientific agency to conduct their own monitoring.”
The effort comes as some of Nestlé’s foes, including a group called Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, are challenging the pumping permit in state administrative court.
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Nestlé said the company pursued the agreement on it own, and it exceeds any state requirements. The USGS equipment will be placed at the same locations Nestlé is monitoring under state permitting requirements.
The U.S. Geological Survey is the scientific arm of the Department of Interior. It’s now recording real-time conditions near the well, and publishing the data on its National Water Information System website through a joint-funding agreement with Nestle.
“Federal, state, tribal and local governments, as well as private sector organizations, regularly come to the USGS for objective, unbiased water information to protect life and property and effectively manage the nation’s water resources,” USGS scientist Tom Weaver said in a statement.
USGS equipment sits near Nestlé’s well in Osceola Township. (Photo courtesy of Nestlé’)
Jim Olson, a Traverse City environmental attorney whose law firm is representing the group challenging Nestlé permit, said the monitoring could be positive but he wanted more information.
“Additional data, if independent, and based on a carefully designed monitoring plan can be positive in evaluating effects,” Olson told Bridge.
“But if monitoring and gauge or water level stations are not placed in the right location, and tied to pumping during, before, and after, at various levels, the data is almost useless.”
Olson also called it “inappropriate” for Nestlé to reach the deal with USGS without including the parties challenging the state permit.
As a result, the deal “is hardly independent, which is a mistake,” Olson said.
Testimony has been filed to the administrative law judge overseeing the trial over Nestlé’s permit, and cross-examination could continue into June, Olson added.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (the reshaped version of DEQ, known as EGLE) is coordinating the Nestlé’s project with USGS. EGLE Director Liesl Clark, who Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed after Nestlé gained its pumping permit, said she welcomed the independent monitoring.
“We have high respect for the quality of services that USGS provides and believe their involvement will help address some of the public’s concerns,” Clark said in a statement.
On the campaign trail last year, Whitmer was among a slew of Democrats who slammed DEQ’s permit for Nestlé — largely because of how little the state charged for withdrawals: A one-time $5,000 fee atop an annual $200 charged a conglomerate that sold $4.5 billion in bottled water in 2017.