The Michigan Court of Appeals last week dealt a blow to Nestlé’s plans for a pumping station in a small mid-Michigan town.
The multinational food and drink company was planning on increasing water withdrawals from a pump in Osceola Township from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute for its Ice Mountain bottled water brand. The township in 2017 rejected the plans based on its zoning laws, and Nestlé sued, arguing that their water-bottling operation was an “essential public service.”
Later that year, a lower circuit court sided with Nestlé, writing that water is essential for life and that bottling it was indeed an “essential public service,” therefore trumping Osceola Township’s zoning laws.
On Dec. 3, the three-judge panel in the appellate court reversed the circuit court’s decision. The appeals court acknowledged that water is essential for life, but wrote that bottling water for sale in an area where tap water is available is unessential.
“The circuit court’s conclusion that [Nestlé’s] commercial water bottling operation is an ‘essential public service’ is clearly erroneous,” the judges wrote. “Other than in areas with no other source of water, bottled water is not essential.”
Nestlé’s discount on Michigan water
In order to pump millions of gallons of Michigan water, Nestlé pays the state just $200 per facility per year.
The $200 covers the cost of a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) permit—no one needs to pay for the water they withdraw, only the permit that allows them to do so. Most of the state’s permits are registered to farmers who pump water to irrigate their fields.
Many Michigan residents believe the state is being ripped off by Nestlé, who is using their permits to withdraw water, bottle it, and sell it back to the community. Last year, the MDEQ allowed public comment on the deal with Nestlé. 80,000 Michigan residents expressed disapproval of the deal—only 70 people supported it.
When farmers pump Michigan water for irrigation, the resource remains in the watershed. When Nestlé pumps water, it is bottled in plastic and distributed elsewhere.
"We need to be very careful about who we're allowing to just take it," said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller last year. "If you're in Texas, you think the state of Texas lets somebody who has oil under their land just take it for free?"
Nestlé has claimed its operations are helping Michigan by creating jobs. However in September, Nestlé announced plans to shut down a facility in Plymouth, eliminating 57 jobs.
What’s next for Nestlé?
Nestlé has made it clear that they want Michigan’s water. After last week’s ruling, the company may either appeal the case to the Michigan Supreme Court or push to get the area rezoned.
Meanwhile in Florida, Nestlé is looking to expand a permit in hopes of taking more than a million gallons a day from a popular tourist spot.
Seven Springs Water Co. is a supplier to Nestlé that for 20 years has been permitted to take 1.2 million gallons of water per day from the beloved Ginnie Springs. The company usually withdrew less than a quarter of that, but Nestlé now wants to increase the daily withdrawal to the full amount.
Like in Michigan, companies that pump water in Florida only have to pay a small fee—in Florida, the fee is $115.
Activists are urging the state to deny Seven Springs’ request to renew its permit, saying the plans to increase water pumping are non-sustainable.