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The Water Wars -- Why all the fuss?

Perils on the angler's screen. Perrier wants our waters
Perils on the angler's screen. Perrier wants our waters
Perils on the angler's screen. Perrier wants our waters
When the grassroots said no (way)
Mecan Springs-through the eyes of Elward Engle
But isn't bottled water safer?It tastes better. Right?
The life cycle of a recycled plastic bottleOkay, I'm outdoors and I'm thirsty.
Some of the "Davids" in the battle with Goliath








The Midwest Battlegrounds: Wisconsin and Michigan

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Upon invitation from Forward Wisconsin (an organization designed to attract business to Wisconsin), Perrier was invited in 2000 to look into a number of sites for potential pumping and bottling operations. One of Perrier's first targeted sites was Mecan Springs, Waushara County, Central Wisconsin. These are the headwaters of the Mecan River, one of the Midwest's finest trout streams.

The people who lived near the Mecan River and Springs were furious. Sensing problems, the locals banded together and formed a grassroots organization, the Friends of the Mecan. Of course, this group didn't have the resources or the political clout or experience that Perrier has, but the people learned quickly and their love for their pristine land, waters and rolling farmlands energized them to fight off the giant. The activists held various fund-raising events and asked for donations to help defray the mounting costs.

If allowed to operate at full capacity, Perrier would drill, pump, bottle and transport more than 250 million gallons of water a year to other parts of the country. Once water is removed from a region, it is gone forever from the normal evaporation/precipitation cycle. You don't need an environmental impact statement to know this.

During dry seasons, rivers can drop enormously as indicated. What happens if huge quantities of water are also extracted?

These springs are also home to one of the few remaining populations of the Karner blue butterfly—an endangered species. It's estimated that only one percent of its 1985 population exists today and this area is one of its strongholds.

Remember the snail darter? It became the subject of a legal controversy (eventually a Supreme Court case) in 1978 when the darter's status as an endangered species delayed the construction of Tellico Dam for two years. Shouldn't Perrier give the Karner blue butterfly at least some consideration?

Karner blue butterfly

Mary Jane Schmudlach, the Central Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited (along with other TU members), and the Friends of the Mecan fought a courageous battle. Perrier withdrew its request to install a high-capacity pump on state land and chose another course. It sunk test wells on leased private property for testing. The selected sites were the Schmudlach Creek which feeds its cold water to the Mecan River and the headwaters of the South Branch of the Wedde, which eventually flows into the Chaffee (another famous Central Wisconsin fishing river).

But the Friends of the Mecan continued to fight ferociously, reasoning that groundwater belongs to the public trust. Perrier decided to look elsewhere.


Perrier then explored Adams County, Wisconsin, not far from Mecan Springs. It planned to pump water from Big Spring, at New Haven (Adams County) and construct a huge bottling plant (allegedly, 1 million sq. ft.) that would extend into Newport, Columbia County. Again Perrier was met with unrelenting resistance from local citizens' groups and has been defeated, at least temporarily. Led by the Arlene and Hiroshi Kanno, the incredible valor of the Adams County citizens' groups certainly was noted by huge Perrier and deserves top billing in any David v. Goliath battles.

Big Springs celebration New Haven
The people of New Haven and Newport had much to celebrate when their grassroots efforts discouraged Perrier…for the time being anyway.
Photos: Carol Zimmerman.

The Kannos refinanced their retirement home and farm to help pay the expenses. Donations and fund-raising events were used to raise money. People believed in Waterkeepers of Wisconsin, Concerned Citizens of Newport and other grassroots organizations and came to the aid of the cause. The cause was very potent: to fight off a foreign giant who was coming over to take our water and sell it back to us for a profit.


Even prior to its Wisconsin attempts, Perrier surreptitiously investigated Mecosta County, MI, eight miles south of Big Rapids. In 1998, it looked at potential plant sites and studied hydrological data. The groundwater eventually flows into Muskegon River and finally to the Great Lakes. Perrier held secret discussions with Governor John Engler in 1998, but the local citizens didn't find out about this until November 2000.

The first plant was completed and in production in May 2002. One year later the plant was doubled in size. Impact on the economy? Perrier received almost $10 million in incentives and school taxes were waived for 12 years. Amazingly, only as few as 45 employees are needed to operate a modern bottling plant. Since the water is free, it was estimated by experts, that Perrier could gross between one half and 1.8 million dollars a day.1 Repeat: a day! Yet the contribution to the local economy was minimal.

Led by Terry Swier, a retired librarian, the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) was formed by enraged citizens. It pooled together whatever meager resources it could, went to court and during the summer of 2003, obtained an injunction against Perrier which now limits the amount of water Perrier can pump subject to further tests and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).


Perrier underestimated its opponents. "We'll dangle a few jobs and they'll be hugging us," seemed to be Perrier's strategy. But so far, Perrier has had its nose bloodied, its pride tainted, its plans altered because of the tremendous battles from citizens' groups. Perrier's opponents appeared to be easy-going, peace-loving people, many in agriculture, others retired or environmentalists. Down to earth folks. Slam-Dunk, I'm sure they thought in Perrier's boardroom.

Mecan River

1 "Perrier stands to clear $0.5 - $1.8 million/day." From the September 25, 2000 Memorandum from Dennis L. Schornack, Special Advisor for Strategic Initiatives for the Office of the Governor, to Governor John Engler, and Sharon Rothwell, Chief of Staff for the Office of the Governor (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request), "The bottled water industry is highly profitable. Using industry figures (IWBA) for production costs (6-11 cents/gal) and retail prices ($3/six-pack of 24 oz bottles) for "Ice Mountain," the label Perrier uses for the Midwest, Perrier stands to clear $.5-1.8 million/day. Profitability is directly related to the price paid for the raw material, which in this case, is free."

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