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Michigan Lets Nestlé Draw More Groundwater for Bottling

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Kate Ter Haar / Flickr

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has granted Nestlé Waters a permit to increase groundwater withdrawal from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute from its White Pine Springs well for the purpose of bottling drinking water.

The approval comes despite near universal opposition from residents, who cite the Swiss food and beverage giant's nominal $200-a-year fee to pump water from its wells. The fee will not change with the new permit.


Additionally, Nestlé's White Pine Springs well near Evart, Michigan happens to lie approximately 120 miles from the lead-poisoned city of Flint. Bottled water companies have drawn outrage from many communities for privatizing their public water supply in the face of Flint's years-long drinking water crisis, where some residents have been billed hundreds of dollars for water they cannot drink.

"Michiganders know that no private company should be able to generate profits by undermining our state's precious natural resources, which is why an unprecedented number of people spoke up to oppose this permit," State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, who serves on the Senate's Natural Resources Committee, told Detroit Free Press. "Out of 81,862 comments filed by the people of our state, only 75 of them were in favor of the permit."

MDEQ said the application met the requirements under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.

"The scope and detail of the department's review of the Nestlé permit application represents the most extensive analysis of any water withdrawal in Michigan history," said C. Heidi Grether, director of MDEQ. "We are hopeful that whether residents agree with the Nestlé permitting decision or not, they will acknowledge and respect the work that MDEQ staff did to thoroughly and conscientiously apply the law in reviewing the permit."

"In full transparency, the majority of the public comments received were in opposition of the permit, but most of them related to issues of public policy which are not, and should not be, part of an administrative permit decision. We cannot base our decisions on public opinion because our department is required to follow the rule of law when making determinations," Grether added.

Nestlé now must prepare a monitoring plan consistent with the requirements of the permit and submit it to MDEQ for consideration before it is authorized to take more water.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters criticized the MDEQ's decision.

The group tweeted, "Sadly, the DEQ chose to give the green light to Nestlé to continue pumping our water—hanging a 'For Sale' sign on Michigan's water resources at a time when communities across our state lack safe, affordable access to drinking water."

"Folks are struggling to get clean water in Detroit and Flint and having a lot of issues with PFAS contamination," Nicholas Occhipinti, the organization's government affairs director told Michigan Radio. "It's just a hard, hard road blow to take for Michiganders to see water pumped out of the watershed for other states."

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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