Where Nestlé guzzles water, local residents doubt claims of negligible impact

Nestlé can pump more than 130 million gallons of water a year from a well in northwestern Michigan to bottle and sell, and it wants to increase that by 60 percent. But a sense of being exploited is propelling many residents to denounce Nestlé’s demand.

EVART, Mich. — The creek behind Maryann Borden’s house was once “a lovely little stream that just babbled along and never changed for decades,” she says. Now it is perhaps 12 feet across — half what it was, she reckons — with grassy islands impeding what used to be an uninterrupted flow.

“What happened?” Borden asked. “Nestlé happened. That’s what I think.” A lot of her neighbors think so, too.

Nestlé can pump more than 130 million gallons of water a year from a well near this northwestern Michigan town to bottle and sell. It’s a big business: Last year, for the first time, bottled water outsold carbonated soft drinks in the United States.

And now Nestlé wants more. It has applied to increase its pumping allowance at the well by 60 percent. The application, which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to rule on within months, has catalyzed opposition in part because of what Nestlé pays for most of the water it bottles: nothing. That is, it pays only a $200 annual permit fee to pump from wells it owns (like this one) or leases.

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“Having anybody take away some of the very best water that should be going into the creeks and the Muskegon River and eventually Lake Michigan, that’s a big deal,” said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, who lives 25 miles from Evart. “That Nestlé does it for free? That’s just crazy.”

Actually, it is standard; landowners and commercial businesses have long had rights in much of the United States to use as much water as they want free if they drill and pump it themselves. Even customers…

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