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The Great Lakes as Commodity

Water: Public Good or Private Gain?

by ARTHUR VERSLUIS

Why is it that Republicans, who once may have been more or less traditional conservatives, now have become the antithesis of traditional conservatism on nearly every issue? Consider water. Michigan, my home state, is blessed with a high water table and is surrounded by the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes basin holds twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. You would think that Republicans would be eager to conserve that water-but no. Quite the reverse.

It was under the reign of Governor John Engler [R] in the late 1990s that the French company Perrier [now the Swiss multinational Nestle] was allowed to come into the state and drill a massive well into an aquifer in the center of lower Michigan. No fees, nothing at all for the state, just a free pass for a foreign corporation to come in and sell for private gain an aquifer upon which a whole region depends. In fact, so eager was that governor (with his Republican cronies) to give away Michigan’s fresh water that his administration gave Perrier $9.5 million dollars in tax abatements to boot-before "environmental permits" were issued.

You might argue that Perrier brought in jobs, but in reality, the number of low-paying plant jobs was minimal-and consider the consequences. Engler and his cronies set a terrible precedent for the state and for the region. Wisconsin had already driven a similar plant out of the state, but Michigan, whose government was entirely under the control of neoconservative Republicans (even the previously non-partisan Supreme Court, the Republican state chair had boasted!), had invited the wolf into the flock and offered it incentives to gorge itself.

The well that Perrier [now Nestle] put in pumps up to 400 gallons a minute out of the ground-24,000 gallons an hour, and over a staggering half million gallons a day, day in, day out. Millions upon millions of gallons a year pumped out of an aquifer that is part of a larger ecology, and upon which many people depend for their water. We all know what will happen-and for what? So that a foreign corporation can make a million and a half dollars a day from a public resource, while paying nothing back to the people, nothing to compensate for the environmental damage upon which their profit is based?

Worst of all, though, is the precedent. Those millions of gallons pumped in a pipeline across a dozen miles of countryside to a bottling plant represent only a minuscule fraction of what may happen. Fresh water is in increasingly short supply across the United States as people suck dry huge aquifers under the great plains and in the far west. So far, Michigan’s "conservative leaders" have only put a large "take me, I’m free" sign on the state’s precious water. What is conservative about that? Nothing.

But all this is part of a still larger agenda that is being put forward by the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and other organizations that in fact represent chiefly the interests of multinational corporations. The WTO rules provide incentives for countries that "privatize public resources"-that invite the wolf into the flock-and punish those countries who try to return to the public ownership of what is rightfully theirs.

The truth is, those who support the wholesaling of what rightfully belongs to the public for private corporate gain-they are not conservatives, but radicals. And this pro-corporate radicalism inevitably is going to cause a backlash, as people realize what their craven politicians have done to their state. Why do the politicians do it? In order to get more campaign donations from corporations, and in order to get big money from those same corporations through seats on boards and "consulting" or "lobbying" work after leaving office. It’s a great mystery how so many politicians become millionaires, often while in office. At least the extremists are well paid as they give away the public good for private gain.

A Judge Who Conserves

It was an astonishing development when, in December, 2003, Michigan’s Mecosta County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Root ruled that the global Nestle corporation has no right to pump millions of gallons of water out of a local aquifer, bottle it, and sell it without recompensing anyone and without regard to public or landowners’ rights. So confident had the global corporation been that it went ahead and built the $150 million bottling plant without legal certainty that it could pump all that water out of the ground, figuring it could bulldoze its opposition.

So everyone was startled at Judge Root’s decision, not least the small local coalition of landowners who had brought the original lawsuit against Nestle for depleting the region’s aquifer. Perhaps most startled of all, though, were the cadre of Nestle lawyers and executives, for Root’s reputation is as a conservative-which to corporate minds meant that he embraced all rapacious global corporations. Yet to everyone’s surprise, the good judge turned out to be a rare and fine specimen of none other than: a traditional conservative.

There was a sign during the trial in the summer that the judge was an unusual man. In July, he took a canoe down to the streams and wetlands in the region in order to see for himself what was there, and what were the dangers of Nestle’s depleting the local aquifer. As it turned out, the judge had grown up in the area and recalled, in his 68-page legal opinion, times as a boy when he and his friends enjoyed themselves near what is now, misleadingly, he added, called "Dead Stream." Local newspapers carried photos of the judge in a canoe, paddle in hands, going down the stream.

No one questions Judge Root’s integrity. Even his opponent in the last election is quoted as saying that the judge is a man of great character who knows and follows the law. And in his opinion, the judge makes clear that his decision is not based on any external factors-not local views, not corporate claims, but only on the law. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] was "simply wrong," he wrote, to allow the plant to go forward without recognizing the potentially devastating effect it would have on the local aquifer, and so on streams and wetlands. It is true that the bottling plant had 150 employees, and it is unfortunate if they no longer have those jobs. But those jobs were based on depleting the local aquifer, and on a pumping station that set a terrible precedent for the entire state of Michigan by making possible the sale of public water for private gain.

Judge Root is a courageous and wise judge, no doubt of that. But will his ruling stand? This is another question. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Michigan Republicans boasted that they had gotten control of the legislature, the governorship-and the previously non-partisan Michigan Supreme Court. If the Court can be "controlled" by Republicans, can it then be swayed by a global corporation, like Nestle? How much money might go where, in order to grease the wheels of justice in favor of the corporation and against the citizens of Michigan and the preservation of the state’s fresh water? These are questions still to be answered. But Judge Root deserves our respect and commendation-in this case, he showed himself to be, not a toady to corporations, but a man of real integrity.

Water Conservation and the Democrats

What happened, you ask? Very soon, the judge’s ruling was stayed by an appeals court, and the plant remained open, pumping out millions of gallons of water. In January, 2004, the state’s Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, and her appointee to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Steven Chester, sided with the Nestle corporation and against the local Michigan residents who were opposed to the Nestle corporation’s withdrawal and sale of their local groundwater. Had the former Republican governor, John Engler, still been in office, one would have expected him to side with the corporation and against the citizens as a matter of course. But a Democratic governor?

Intrigued by this turn of events, I took a look at the DEQ website, www.michigan.gov/deq, and the explanatory documents there. Among these documents were the DEQ director’s open letter to citizens, and the amicus brief filed by the state in favor of the international corporation and its water bottling plant (and therefore against the local Michigan citizens who opposed the plundering of their aquifer). These documents, albeit tedious, contained some curious details concerning the support for the Nestle-Perrier bottling plant from the governor and her Department of Environmental Quality.

In his public statement, Chester writes that "The filing of an amicus and the issuance of a stay allows the DEQ the opportunity to play an active role and apply its expertise in the review of monitoring data collected in the area of the potentially impacted waters to insure during the stay that no deleterious impacts or unacceptable harm occurs to the water bodies of concern. If adverse impacts are confirmed, the DEQ is committed to bringing these to the attention of the courts and parties." This is hardly a statement of principle–indeed, it doesn’t even strongly endorse protecting the groundwater. The DEQ will merely bring the depletion of groundwater "to the attention of the courts and parties." Boy, wording like that must really have the corporate lawyers quaking in their shiny faux Italian loafers.

The amicus brief adds a new element. It acknowledges that this case has the potential to be the single most important legal precedent for water jurisprudence in Michigan history. But, like Chester’s statement, it refers exclusively to the extraction of groundwater in the smallest figures possible–250 gallons per minute–as opposed, say, to half a million gallons a day, or millions of gallons a week. In other words, the phrasing implicitly tends to favor the international corporation. And in its conclusion, the amicus brief says that the Michigan DEQ will "conduct additional monitoring and promptly bring to the Court’s attention and the parties’ attention any change in circumstances that would further threaten the environment." Note the phrasing here: further threaten the environment. This implies that the current threat to the environment posed by groundwater depletion is no problem, but the DEQ will "monitor" "further" threats. Great.

What’s saddest about all this: the Democratic Governor Granholm and the DEQ director had the opportunity to show real leadership here. They could have stood up for fundamental principles: that Michigan’s groundwater isn’t for sale; that international corporations can’t come in and exploit public resources for private gain. Instead, Granholm, in Clintonesque fashion, "triangulated." She cast her eye over to the Republican-controlled state legislature, the Republican-controlled Attorney General’s office, and the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court, and decided, even in a case that will likely set a precedent for water rights, that she wouldn’t stand up for the simplest of ethical principles.

The fact is: it’s wrong for an international corporation to pump groundwater out of a region’s aquifer for private gain. Why? Because the water does not belong to the corporation. The groundwater is a public resource; citizens rely on it for their water supply; the groundwater is essential to the local and regional ecology. The logic of the amicus brief is this: we stand for no fundamental principles here; we show no leadership; we are not interested in protecting the state’s citizens or the region’s ecology until the environment is "further" threatened or more likely, irreparably damaged. That is a weak, irresponsible position, and, once again, it sets a terrible precedent. One could expect this sort of thing from Republicans. But from Democrats too? Will no one stand up for what’s right? And so the battle over Michigan’s water continues.

ARTHUR VERSLUIS is a professor of American Studies at Michigan State University, and author of more than twenty books. He can be reached at versluis@msu.edu