Update on Nestlé: Michiganders Mobilize to Take Back Public Water
By Miranda Fox
The Swiss multinational Nestlé has been facing increasing scrutiny in Michigan. Outside of the small town of Evart, a mere 128 miles from Flint, Nestlé is attempting to increase how much spring water it is taking for water bottling. Nestlé submitted an application with Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) late last year to increase pumping from 250 to 400 gallons per minute at its White Pine Springs well No. 101 in Osceola County. However, local residents and Michiganders across the state came together in droves at the last public meeting to speak out against Nestlé's proposal. More than 500 attended the meeting, and nearly everyone opposed the application.
I spoke with Jim Maturen, a local police force retiree and avid trout fisherman, who rejected Nestlé's presence in his county when it first appeared in Michigan nearly 20 years ago. Jim served on the Osceola County Board of Commissioners at that time and continues to oppose Nestlé's water grab today.
Jim told me that, originally, Nestlé wanted to establish two well sites in the neighboring state of Wisconsin but the people in New Haven and Newport saw that they were on the receiving end of a raw deal. Nestlé ultimately got the boot thanks to citizen action and a lawsuit. And that's about the time Nestlé successfully approached city and county officials in Osceola and Mecosta Counties, Michigan.
Jim recounted that the zoning laws weren't set up in a way that allowed his board to intervene, and they unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the company. The members tried to get water levels monitored by an independent group, a fund set aside to pay for any future damages, and a small percentage of the proceeds to support Evart. Nestlé refused.
Jim reminded me that Nestlé's mode of operation is the same no matter where it goes: the corporation targets small, rural communities, promises that no one will see the effects of its water take, and claims to bring jobs. In spite of Nestlé's promises, the community does see the effects of Nestlé's water grab, and they don't like what they are seeing.
Evart's zoning board recently denied Nestlé the approval it sought for a critical piece of water pipeline infrastructure. This pipeline upgrade would allow more water to move from Nestlé's wellhead (the source) into production for its local bottled water brand: Ice Mountain.
The company quickly appealed the zoning board's decision in court but then asked to put the case on hold pending the DEQ's decision regarding its application to increase pumping to 400 gallons/min. If the DEQ denies Nestlé's request to pump more water, the pipeline expansion would be unnecessary. This seems to indicate that Nestlé is no longer confident that its increased pumping permit is a sure thing.
In Evart, Jim and other members of the community have taken it upon themselves to monitor the conditions of the environment surrounding Nestlé's well sites at Twin and Chippewa Creeks. What he's found spells trouble for the trout and the future of the entire creeks' ecosystems. Trout require cold water temperatures, and with less spring water to cool the creek from the bottom up, Jim found that the water is nearing temperatures that will be too warm for trout if nothing changes soon. But Jim hasn't actually found any trout here this season anyway, probably because he could hardly find enough water to submerge his thermometer. Some areas of the creeks have less than four inches flowing.
Nestlé, as far as Jim's concerned, is killing the creek. And he's frustrated because the DEQ has been relying on computer modeling and Nestlé's internal reports of the creek's condition, when a site visit by any qualified biologist would reveal the lack of water, the warmth of water, and the near-total absence of fish. But, at the very least, public pressure is forcing the state of Michigan to take further action.
Twin Creek in June 2017 with low water levels, Evart, MI The Story of Stuff Project
Last week, the Michigan DEQ told Nestlé to reexamine how its proposal to take more water would impact the local wetlands, streams and natural springs. As a DEQ supervisor put it in his letter, the information provided by Nestlé is just plain insufficient.
While these victories may seem small, our collective citizen muscles are building a movement too powerful to ignore. People have come together, written letters, held town meetings, gone door-to-door, and are taking it upon themselves to protect their most important local resource: water.
This fall we will be releasing our next movie, all about the importance of clean, safe water. We're going to show the bigger story here: the struggle to protect and provide drinking water for all Michiganders, and really for all people. While Nestlé bottles spring water in Evart, thousands have lost access to tap water in nearby Flint and Detroit, ironically forced to rely on that very same bottled water from corporations like Nestlé, just to survive. It's time to speak out against the big-business politics that fuel water privatization, and make a bold claim for clean, safe public water for everyone, everywhere. Join us!
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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