Grand Rapids Water Festival Saturday

061509-water_festival.jpg

On Saturday, the annual Grand Rapids Water Festival will take place in Riverside Park from 12:00pm to 9:00pm. The event will feature tables from environmental organizations, speakers, and a number of performances by folk and bluegrass bands. Among those slated to speak are representatives from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Michigan Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. You can view the full schedule online.

Here’s a video featuring Michigan residents sharing their reflections on the importance of water to Michigan:

Advertisements

Bling H2O: Making Unsustainable Water a Fashion Statement

050109-bling_h2o.jpg

Yesterday, I wrote about a new bottled water company out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that claims to offer a more “sustainable” alternative to bottled water.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is another packaged water product that is available in Grand Rapids, Bling H2O. While not made here, it’s worth noting because it’s so horribly offensive.

It’s sold at the 1913 Room located in the Amway Grand Plaza downtown and goes for a whopping $64 dollars per 750ml bottle. It’s sold as a pure status symbol to appeal to the “super-luxury market.” Its website says:

It’s couture water that makes an announcement like a Rolls Royce Phantom… the “Cristal” of bottled water.

The water comes packaged in a frosted glass bottle that is “exquisitely handcrafted with Swarovski crystals.” The 60 crystals spell out the word “bling.” At the Amway Grand Plaza:

The restaurant serves Bling H2O with tulip-shaped flutes atop sterling silver wine coasters.

A rose is placed into every empty bottle to dress up what Chad LeRoux, director of marketing for the hotel, calls “a novelty item that you can take away with you as a memory of the 1913 Room.”

Unlike Boxed Water Is Better, Bling H2O makes no claims of sustainability. Instead, it says only that its water comes from an undisclosed source in Dandridge, Tennessee. The company says it goes through a nine-step purification process, but with no universal standards for bottled water, it’s impossible to know if it is really any “better” than other water. From there, the water is shipped to high-end hotels and restaurants around the world, a process that results in an untold number of CO2 emissions. The only real mention of the environment comes in the claim that the bottles are “reusable.”

050109-bling_ad.jpg

As if the price, packaging, and environmental aspects weren’t offensive enough, the company’s website throws in a healthy dose of sexism as well. The homepage features a woman that appears to be wearing nothing but a strand of pearls with the bottle of water propped between her heel and buttocks. The water itself is also sexualized, with the company repeatedly describing the different aspects as “pretty.”

While it might seem to be a relic of the pre-economic crisis times, Bling H2O is still alive and kicking. It just released a bargain version that goes for just $20 in plastic bottles. Of course, you’ll have to do without the crystals.

Boxed Water: Better for the Environment?

043009-boxed_water.jpg

Bottled water has a somewhat controversial reputation in Michigan. For years, a debate has raged about the bottling and selling of the state’s water, with ongoing organizing by groups across the state in response to plans to expand water pumping and a debate in the courts and legislature over regulations.

Now, a new company is operating out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that bills itself as “part sustainable water company, part art project, part philanthropic project” that claims to offer a better alternative to bottled water.

It’s gotten a lot of hype in the media, but is it really better for the environment?

On its website, the company touts the fact that its containers are recyclable. But, you can’t recycle them in the Grand Rapids area. The containers are produced from trees in certified, sustainably managed forests and they take less energy to be produced–and shipped–than plastic bottles used by the rest of the industry. Moreover, the company gives 20% of its profits to “world water relief foundations” and “reforestation foundations” to offset the environmental impacts of its products. A lot of companies do that–Nestle gives money, Coca-Cola gives money–it’s just a way of diverting attention from the underlying problem of privatizing water.

Like most bottled water companies, Boxed Water Is Better relies on imported water, in this case it’s “carbon-filtered, purified water from Minnesota”–that means a lot of resources wasted on transportation. The company discloses that tap water is better for the earth but they say that they are offering a “better” alternative in a growing market for packaged water.

The problem is that producing such a product ultimately legitimizes the demand and makes people think that packaged water is necessary. Maybe it’s slightly better than buying water from Coca-Cola or Nestle, but in the end it’s still promoting a destructive industry.

Bottled water costs more, it’s typically no safer, and it’s less regulated than tap water. Moreover, environmental organizations and human rights activists have argued that access to safe water will be one of the pivotal issues of the 21st century. As water is privatized and bottlers move in, aquifers are dried up and water is diverted elsewhere–raising the possibility that access to water will be based on one’s ability to pay. At the same time, confidence in municipal water systems declines–so does their ability to be maintained.

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

Bottlemania is the most recent of a large number of books published over the past few years on bottled water and its problems.

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Over the past several years, numerous books have been published about bottled water and the privatization of water. MediaMouse.org has reviewed two of those, the 2005 book Inside the Bottle and the recently published Global Covenant. Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It is the most recent examination of this controversial and ever relevant–especially to those of us living in the Great Lakes region–topic.

In Bottlemania, Royte explores the rise of bottle water over the past twenty years. In 1987, those living in the United States drank 5.7 gallons of bottled water per person, but by 2006, that number had grown to 27.6 gallons per person. Royte traces this increase in consumption to a variety of different causes–increasing marketing that has associated bottled water consumption with status, fear over the safety of public water supplies, and health concerns (soft drink companies Coca-Cola and Pepsi are marketing bottled water as a healthy alternative to soda). In varying capacities, Royte recognizes that all of these reasons–and others–have some legitimacy but ultimately concludes that for her, and presumably the rest of us living in the United States, that tap water is the best choice.

Throughout the course of her book, Royte takes the reader to a number of locations that typify contemporary struggles and debate over bottled water. She brings the reader to the town of Fryeburg, Maine where a debate is raging about water being pumped for sale on the Poland Spring brand and where the possibility of involvement by Nestle–one of the largest bottled water sellers in the world–hangs over the town’s head. She uses the debate in Freyburg to examine critical questions about bottled water such as who profits from it, how does it affect local communities, how does it affect water supplies, and how do corporations relate to local residents. She visits a water treatment plant in Kansas City to explore the state of the country’s water systems and reports that the EPA standards for water leave out several potentially dangerous chemicals. Beyond that, she reports that the nation’s water system is in desperate need of an upgrade.

While Royte traces the rise of bottled water, she also explores the growing public backlash against bottled water. She tells how restaurants are eliminating bottled water from their menus, how cities are no longer purchasing bottled water for city council meetings, and how Chicago has passed a five-cent bottled water tax. At the same time, she tells how organizations such as Corporate Accountability are doing public outreach by offering taste comparisons between tap and bottled water. She also explains how Pepsi–following an organized campaign–agreed to write on its Aquafina labels “Public Water Supply” to inform consumers that it was simply filtered tap water. Royte also tells readers that several people concerned about the safety of tap water are switching to filters instead of bottled water.

Overall, Bottlemania offers a good introduction to many of the issues surrounding bottled water consumption in the United States. While it lacks the international focus that other books on bottled water have, Royte’s more subtle style may appeal to a wider audience than more political books on the topic.

Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Michigan Citizens Fight Toxic Contamination

A new group called the Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources Coalition (POWER) has formed in Northern Michigan to challenge a legacy of toxic pollution in the Chrlevoix Watershed.

There is an organized campaign to clean up and protect the Charlevoix Watershed in Northern Michigan. A group called The Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources Coalition (POWER) is organizing to fight a toxic legacy that is decades old.

The Penn Dixie company used to produce cement along the shore of Lake Michigan near Charlevoix. In 1980, the plant closed down but left behind a toxic legacy known as CKD – Cement kiln dust. CDK when mixed with water becomes leachate, a toxic bleach-like soup. It burns skin, kills fish and releases large amounts of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. A DEQ study in 2004 showed that even in a diluted 10% concentration of leachate, the death rate of fathead minnow was 100%.

The site originally had a government designated “hazardous” label because of the piles of cement kiln dust. In 1991, then Governor John Engler changed the status of the site to “non-hazardous” in order to allow developers to build. In 1994, Bay Harbor developers and CMS Energy built a multi-million dollar resort without having to do any clean up of the site. In fact, they bulldozed the cement kiln dust into quarries and spread some on the ground to build roads and a golf course.

Golf courses use an excessive amount of water, which means that the cement kiln dust became leachate and is now contaminating the surrounding watershed. According to the POWER Coalition, the response to this disaster is to inject the toxic material into the earth. CMS Energy–instead of being forced to conduct an actual clean-up of the site–is proposing to move the contaminated water to the community of Alba and inject the water underground. Alba is the highest point in Northern Michigan and is headwaters to six great watersheds.

The POWER Coalition and Friends of the Jordan River Watershed are calling for an end to this contamination of Michigan’s water. The groups are encouraging people to send letters to Governor Granholm asking that she overturn the permit for the proposed site in Alba. If you want more information on ways to support this campaign contact the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed at foj@friendsofthejordan.org.

Beach Closings Increase in Michigan

Becah closings in Michigan have increased by 60% according to a new report due to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC finds that closings have increased due to contamination from sewage, stormwater, and unknown sources.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a new report on water quality at the nation’s beaches. The report–based on a review of federal data–found that Michigan’s beaches were closed or placed under advisories due to concerns over water quality 60% more frequently than they were in the previous year. The report states that Michigan’s beaches were closed or put under advisories 198 days last year, compared with 124 in 2006. Overall, Michigan was 20th nationally for the percentage of samplings exceeding US health standards in 2007. In Michigan, unknown sources of contamination caused 78 percent of the closings and advisories, 18 percent were from sewage and 4 percent were from stormwater.

Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006. In the Great Lakes, 15 percent of beachwater samples violated those standards–the highest level of contamination of any coastal region in the continental US.

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

Blue Covenant is a clarion call to anyone who cares about the future of human and non-human life, all of which is dependent on water. Barlow takes on the difficult, yet important, task of confronting readers with the stark realities surrounding water and blends it with an inspiring call to action.

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

One of the benefits of living in the Great Lakes region is that we live near to roughly one third of the world’s fresh water supply. However, since the Great Lakes are seen by many in the market-driven world as a resource, the responsibility of those of us who live here is tremendous if we are serious about protecting these bodies of water. In an excellent sequel to her first book on the global water wars, Maude Barlow has done us all a great service by writing her newest book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.

Blue Covenant is a clarion call to anyone who cares about the future of human and non-human life, all of which is dependent on water. Barlow takes on the difficult, yet important, task of confronting readers with the stark realities surrounding water. The first few chapters are devoted to a litany of statistics and examples of how humans are destroying and diminishing the world’s fresh water supplies. For example, Barlow states “Forty percent of US rivers and streams are too dangerous for fishing, swimming or drinking, as are 46% of lakes due to massive toxic runoff from industrial farms, intensive livestock operations and the more than one billion pounds of industrial weed killer used throughout the country every year.” This reality is even worse in most of the developing world where there is less wealth and less of an infrastructure to provide access to and treatment of water. Again, according to Barlow, “More than one-third of Africa’s population currently lacks access to safe drinking water, and within fifteen years, one in two Africans will be living in countries that are confronted with serious water stress.”

After Barlow lays out the grim realities of the current global water crisis, she investigates some of the main factors that are causing this crisis. The author identifies industrial practices such as water used in technology production or irrigation of corporate agriculture as one of the factors involved in creating the current global water crisis. These practices not only divert large amounts of fresh water from watersheds and rivers, they are a major cause of water pollution. For example, according to David Pimentel at Cornell University, “it takes seventeen hundred liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol, when the water used to process the corn to bio-fuels is added to the water used to grow corn, usually using wasteful flood irrigation systems.”

Another major factor in the current water crisis is the push to privatize the use of water. One way that privatization can be seen is in the push to have private corporations run municipal water systems. This push towards privatization is particularly evident in poorer countries and is being promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank as conditions for debt relief. Another international entity that is pushing privatization is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=World_Business_Council_for_Sustainable_Development) a group that is comprised of mining, oil, beverage, and finance corporations who came together in 1997 with the intent of directing international water policy in their favor.

The other major player in creating a global water crisis is what Maude Barlow calls the “global water cartel.” The global water cartel is made up of companies like Nestle, Suez, Coca Cola and Pepsi. These companies have not only been diverting more water away from public use to bottled water for profit, they have been influencing policy around the world.

The book also looks at how the water cartel and other industries have responded to the growing water crisis. Here the author identifies two types of strategies, a greenwashing approach and a technology solution. The technology solution has basically created other markets for some industries, which are hoping to cash in on the water crisis. The types of technology they have created are desalination and nanotechnology. Desalination is the process where companies would remove salt from ocean water so people can consume it. This is no real solution and it makes the public even more dependent on the private sector for drinking water. Nanotechnology is most likely not viable and many experts that the author cites believe that there has not been enough research to know whether or not it is beneficial for humans.

The greenwashing strategy is where companies that are using public water resources are trying to present themselves as entities that care about water. Many of these companies have engaged in PR campaigns to paint themselves as defenders of water around the planet. One example is Dow Chemical, which recently launched its Dow Water Solutions campaign to create “safer, more sustainable water supplies for communities around the world.” Dow is also sponsoring an annual Blue Planet Run, which sends runners around the world to raise money for safe water projects in the Third World. Barlow says that these and other efforts not only distracts the public from the current water crisis, it diverts our attention away from the very companies and institutions that are the main perpetrators of the global water crisis.

The last section of the book is devoted to the responses from communities all around the world to the global water crisis. Barlow documents examples of public resistance on every continent on the planet. For example, in Chile civil society prevented the plans of a Canadian mining company that wanted to remove the ice glaciers on top of several mountains in order to have easier access to mineral deposits. These glaciers are a main source of fresh water in Chile, so communities organized to fight this effort and won. In India, thousands of farmers and other citizens smashed Pepsi and Coca Cola machines in an effort to get those beverage companies to stop diverting water for local agriculture and use it for selling bottled water. In addition, the author documents the rise of global citizen movements around water rights, where groups who were once isolated are not coming together to push for strong international policy to protect public water rights. These efforts to change policy are a public response to the efforts of the global water cartel to promote policies of privatization.

Blue Covenant concludes with a plea for all of us to not only work for global water justice, but to see this effort as threefold. First, there needs to be a serious effort at water conservation. We cannot continue to consume the amount of water as individuals and communities at the current rate. To put this into perspective, Barlow says that the average human needs 50 liters per day for drinking, cooking and sanitation. “The average North American uses almost 600 liters per day and the average African uses just 6 liters per day.” Those of us living in the US have a greater responsibility to change that disparity. Second, the author urges us to work for water justice. Water justice means that we guarantee that all people have access to the necessary amount of water needed to sustain a healthy life. Lastly, Barlow says we need water democracy. Water democracy would mean that corporations, financial institutions and governments can no longer determine how water is used, rather all of us would be able to decide how water should be used.

Blue Covenant is one of the best books I have read in recent years in terms of combining good information, great analysis and a call to action. In this case, we have little choice but to act and Maude Barlow’s book is a great tool to help us put up a good fight.

Maude Barlow, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, (The New Press, 2007).

New Developments in Nestle Water Bottling Operations

The Michigan Messenger is reporting that Nestle Waters North America is seeking state approval to drill miles of pipe to supply a facility in Evart, Michigan with water that will be sold under the company’s Ice Mountain brand. The website reports that Nestle is wanting to use directional drilling from a well that will be situated at Osceola County’s Spring Hill Bible Camp. According to the report, the pipes would extend for more than three miles and will cross several wetlands and streams. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be required to determine whether the plan may cause “unacceptable disruption, loss of habitat or loss of the wetland itself.

Additionally, The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported last month that Manistee County officials recently voted to add a resolution to their draft master plan that would ban water withdrawals that “have no direct benefits to residents… and which do not increase public safety, health, or welfare.” According to an editorial in the newspaper, Nestle would have difficulty proving that pumping water in Manistee would be a public benefit.

Finally, Alternet.org has published an interview with author Elizabeth Royte who discusses her new book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and the nationwide efforts to fight Nestle’s privatization of water.

Group Urges People to Act to Protect Michigan’s Water

Currently, the Michigan legislature is debating bills that threaten fresh water in Michigan by making more water eligible for diversion and removing public control of our water. The Senate voted last week to pass SB 860 that allows up to 25% of Michigan’s waters to be open for withdrawal. Critics–including groups like Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation–have pointed out that this law would make it much easier for corporations to sell Michigan’s water for a profit.

In response, Progress Michigan is encouraging people to contact their legislators to oppose the bill. The bill still needs to pass in the House of Representatives and then differences need to be worked out in a conference committee, so there is still time for people to have an impact on the legislation.

Moreover, as an alternative to this policy, the environmental group Clean Water Action has proposed the “Great Lakes, Great Michigan: 2007 Platform” would require water diversions to be protected via “public trust” principles that prioritize the common good over private profit.

Scrutinizing Michigan’s Water Assessment Tool

Withdrawing large amounts of Great Lakes water could be as easy as paying your bills online. With a few clicks and the right numbers you could tap into the Great Lakes.

Michigan legislators are currently discussing a proposal by Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, on whether to amend the Senate version (SB 212) of the Great Lakes compact by adding an Assessment Tool that would create a model based approach towards withdrawing Great Lakes water. The model is intended for large withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons per day.

The Great Lakes Compact is an agreement between the eight Great Lakes States to limit water diversions. For the compact to be valid it must go through both houses of Congress in each state and then be signed into law by the state’s governor. The compact must then be passed by both Houses of Congress at the national level and be signed into law by the president.

So far Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and New York have enacted the compact into law.

In a recent slideshow, Jon Bartholic, director of Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research had mock versions of an easy to use water withdrawal website that would provide instant approval or rejection.

The entire concept of an “Assessment Tool” and “Screening Tool” (the website), is from the government appointed Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council.

Public Act 34 was passed in Michigan in February 2006 mandating that the Council come up with “criteria and indicators to evaluate the sustainability of the state’s groundwater use.”

The model that the Council developed works by determining how much water is in Michigan streams and then to determine how much water can be withdrawn before there is an adverse effect on indicator species such as trout.

An indicator species is a species that is sensitive to environmental changes. Trout is the most likely candidate to be the indicator species for the Assessment Tool. Trout are sensitive to temperature changes and are seen as good indicators of stream health by ecologists.

The council has worked out four A-D Zones that water withdrawals will fall under, with A having the least amount of impact on the indicator species and D having the greatest impact on the population.

Zone B is where there is the beginning of a negative impact on the indicator species. What is unclear in the Council’s final report is whether it will be ok to fall into the Zone B range.

The report says: “In Zone B the proposed water use will likely begin to impact ‘thriving’ fish populations and, at a minimum, steps need to be taken to better understand water uses in the area and concerns regarding specific aquatic resources and to educate users.”

The council left the Zone B issue unresolved, the report stated: “The Council did not reach final consensus on whether or not a withdrawal in Zone B also should be considered as ‘not likely to cause an Adverse Resource Impact,’ either by the Screening Tool or following a site-specific determination. We recognize that this area required discussion beyond the time afforded the Council for deliberations.”

The unresolved Zone B is significant since the Council recommended that this model should become the legal standard for water withdrawals in Michigan.

Other legal aspects for the final decision are that the decision is based on the best available data and then the decision can be challenged legally by either a third party or by the applicant.

The Council did not set up any guidelines for anybody that over time ends up falling in the Zone C or D range. There also has not been consensus over whether these permits should be permanent or renewable.

James Clift, who was a member of the Council and is part of the Michigan Environmental Council disagreed with the report’s acknowledgment that some streams could be reduced by as much as 40-50 percent and still fall into Zone A and could still “support good populations of trout.”

In a press release Clift explains: “The numbers prove that the assessment tool should be used exactly for what it was intended – as a tool, not the sole means of determining whether water users can responsibly pump huge quantities of water from the ground.”

The Council did not come to a consensus over whether each stream should be valued equally or on a stream by stream basis since some streams are valued differently for their ecological or recreational importance.

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council: Final Report

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council MDEQ website