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Published: Tuesday, 1/6/2004

Michigan wades into water case

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With 120 jobs at stake, two agencies in Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm s administration have intervened on behalf of industry in one of the Great Lakes region s highest-profile battles over water rights.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the state s Department of Labor and Economic Growth have filed a legal brief in support of Nestle Waters North America s argument to keep drawing groundwater from four Mecosta County spring wells for the company s Ice Mountain operation near Stanwood, Mich.

The case has drawn attention because of its potential ramifications for the world s largest supply of fresh surface water.

Groundwater replenishes many of the rivers and streams that feed into the lakes. A coalition of Great Lakes governors and premiers, led by Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, pledged to finalize by June an agreement for limits on withdrawals from the Great Lakes. But they have left open questions about how to regulate groundwater that replenishes those huge bodies of water.

Citing common law, Judge Lawrence C. Root of Mecosta County Circuit Court ruled Nov. 25 that Nestle s Ice Mountain bottled-water plant was having an excessive impact on west Michigan s groundwater supply.

The judge gave Nestle 21 days to cease water withdrawals. The Michigan Court of Appeals subsequently granted an emergency stay to the order, allowing the plant to continue drawing water until the merits of the case are heard.

In a recent statement on the Michigan DEQ s Web site, Director Steven Chester agreed the case “has the potential of being one of the most important cases in terms of influencing and defining Michigan s water law jurisprudence.”

Mr. Chester vowed to have his agency work with others on a state standard for groundwater withdrawals for operations as large as Nestle s. “We intend to begin development of such a comprehensive framework as soon as possible,” he wrote.

Mr. Chester noted the sensitivity of his agency s decision to intervene, but said it was not necessarily taking sides on the merits of the case. Nestle had announced plans to lay off or reassign 120 of the Ice Mountain plant s 147 employees.

Nestle has argued the water levels vary by season, and that they rebound in the fall.

The Michigan DEQ supported Nestle s request for a stay on the judge s order after confirming “water levels in the impacted waters presently are at the highest levels they have been in three years, thereby mitigating concern over possible imminent harm,” Mr. Chester wrote.

Nestle s motion for a new trial, based on the seasonal fluctuations of water levels, will be heard Jan. 13 by Judge Root.

The plaintiff, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, has established a link on its Web page to assist people in expressing opinions to Ms. Granholm about the role the two agencies in her administration play in the case.

The brief was filed by the two state agencies a day after Nestle had filed for the emergency stay with the appellate court. Eight days before, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth announced it was open for business as an agency.



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