Can a bottled water royalty help preserve the Great Lakes?

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Image: stevendepolo (Flickr)

By Cameryn Cass
Capital News Service

Michigan residents would pay 3 to 6 cents more for a bottle of water under a plan to sustain Great Lakes water improvements.

In addition, bottled water companies would pay 25 cents per gallon of water they pump from the ground to package and sell under the plan proposed by For Love of Water, a nonprofit environmental organization in Traverse City, Michigan.

The plan would put an estimated $250 million annually into a water trust fund to replace lead lines, create water affordability plans and emergency water funds, said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’S executive director.

The model legislation would do so by putting a royalty on bottled water — not a tax.

Former Lt. Gov. John Cherry proposed a tax in 2009. It was met with fierce opposition and never passed.

The language matters: Calling it a tax treats water like a product. But a royalty exemplifies the right to use water, not the right to sell it as a product, Kirkwood said.

By using the term royalty, the model legislation would further extend public trust protection to the groundwater that companies like Nestlé pump and then bottle, she said.

Right now, only surface waters are included in the public trust policy framework, said Conan Smith, the chief executive officer at the Michigan Environmental Council.

Though Nestlé recently stopped its operations in Osceola County, its successor, Blue Triton Brands, now pumps 288 gallons per minute from the White Pines Spring well, down from the controversial proposal of 400 gallons per minute.

There are 49 bottle water companies selling Michigan’s water from both municipal and groundwater sources, Kirkwood said.

The International Bottled Water Association opposes the plan,  and says that bottled water should be treated like other food products that are royalty-free.

“Targeting bottled water puts an undue burden on a food product upon which many rely for their daily hydration needs,” Jill Culora, the vice president of communications for the association, said in an email.

Such a royalty would unlikely be able to provide a stable source of revenue long term, she said. And in comparison to other water users, bottled water companies account for less than 0.02% of groundwater use nationwide.

Still, environmentalists worry about companies extracting the groundwater for profit.

“Groundwater depletion is very concerning because 45% of the water in the Great Lakes Basin actually comes from the groundwater,” Kirkwood said. “It’s all connected.”

Congress recently allocated $1 billion to Great Lakes restoration, Smith said. People are excited about it, but it’s a one-time investment.

“That’s a really big deal,” said Kirkwood. “The state has been looking for money to rebuild its water infrastructure for a long time.”

FLOW said it hopes its proposal gains support in light of the federal investment and growing concerns about water quality and equity issues in a region home to 20% of the world’s fresh surface water.

In response to similar concerns, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago  in June declared that water and sanitation is a basic right, reaffirming its protection within the public trust of Cook County.

“Here we are, the most water-rich region in the world, and some of our people don’t have access to clean water and sanitation,” said Cameron Davis, a commissioner who participated in the discussion of the resolution. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Although no other Great Lakes state has adopted a similar measure, Michigan is farthest along, Davis said.

Communication and collaboration is increasingly important as equitable access to clean water and sanitation becomes more and more limited, he said.

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