Recently, I had to make a trip up to the Great Lakes area of Michigan for a family funeral. I’d never been to Michigan before and the thing that struck me was how green and lush the area was. Small farms dotted the landscape, punctuated by the occasional horse and buggy of the Amish. My uncle’s house was situated on a small lot on a hill above a sparkling and gurgling creek, the sort of thing I would have loved to play in as a child. The hammock strung across it indicated I wasn’t the only one who loved the water. It was a small and simple town, the main business being the Gerber Baby Food plant, a place where my Grampa had worked for a while when his family was young. In fact, my mother was born in the Gerber Hospital.
So when people at the luncheon after the service were talking about a brouhaha involving Nestle buying out the Gerber baby food plant, it really peaked my interest. This was more than the normal small business gets bought out by corporate giant, apparently it was actually part of a larger problem that is only beginning to spark interest in my drought-ridden home state.
For those not in the know, Nestle is the number one bottled water company in the world. Most people have heard of Perrier, but the company also owns close to 80 different labels of bottled water that are marketed and sold throughout the world.
Nestle has gone on a mission to buy up private lands in Michigan and Florida (to name just a couple of places) and then use their ownership of that property to justify drilling wells and capturing the groundwater underneath to pump out into bottling plants.
The problems began to arise when their pumping meant that neighboring properties were potentially going to run out of water in THEIR wells, that local springs and lakes were going to be severely threatened, or in the case of Tampa, Florida, the drinking water supply of the city was jeopardized because Nestle sued to continue pumping, even during a severe drought.
As Nestle tried to move into areas and buy up property (often negotiating contracts with local governments in secret) upon which to put wells, varying groups contested their rights and generally made it difficult for Nestle to continue expanding their bottling operations. Nestle has fought community opposition to their wells with lobbyists, sneak tactics and outright bullying with varying degrees of success. In Fremont, where I became aware of the scope of the story, after nearby community activists helped block the construction of new wells, Nestle purchased Gerber Foods, a company which has 4 wells already in existence in their food production facility. Word amongst the locals was that Nestle cared little about baby food, but only bought the property for access to the water.
While Fremont’s story is still unfolding, there is better news in other municipalities. In Mecosta County Michigan, a ruling was finally handed down Monday, after a lengthy battle, severely restricting Nestle’s ability to pump, and offering back some protection to the local aquifers. Other towns are still battling Nestle’s operations, but community awareness and an understanding of the need to keep public resources public IS growing. That’s the good news, let’s hope it continues to spread.
For Fremont, only time will tell. It’s a quiet and beautiful town full of small farms and lovely old homes, sandy-bottomed lakes and crystal clear streams. Let’s hope it is able to remain so.
(My great-grandmother’s house in Newaygo. The house was originally on the town square, but was moved up onto the hill and the porch was added by a more recent owner)
To find out more about the water wars being waged under the soil of YOUR hometown, this is a good place to start: http://www.stopcorporateabuse.org/water-campaign