Without Context, Water Use Claims Are Misleading (Millions? Billions? Trillions?)

Water use debate often occurs in an information vacuum

On Jan. 8, Michigan Capitol Confidential reported that about 55 trillion gallons of rainwater fall on this state every year.

On Jan. 7, a Michigan Capitol Confidential post on Facebook reported that Berrien County uses 791.6 billion gallons of water every year.

On Jan. 3, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s news site reported that the St. Lawrence River removes, on average, about 110 million gallons per minute from the Great Lakes Basin.

This information was published to provide context for Michigan residents who have been on the receiving end of a multiple-front campaign against a certain water bottling plant in particular, and against human use of water resources in general. The campaign is misleading because, in the appropriately named Great Lake State, it ignores the huge magnitude of this resource compared to the relatively tiny scale of all human uses. Just 0.2% (less than 1%) of “consumptive use of water” in 2016 was due to bottled water, according to a state report. The state defines it as,  “Consumptive water use is the portion of a water withdrawal that is not returned locally due to evaporation, incorporation into products, or transport out of the Great Lakes Basin.” The largest consumptive user was agricultural irrigation, at 44%.

Various bills have been introduced to replace the legal doctrine that has traditionally governed water use in Michigan, called riparian rights. They would replace it with a public trust doctrine where water is managed by government for the public.

Applying the approach taken in the American West to Michigan ignores the incredible volume of water that lies around and under this state.

The news site MLive reported on these bills with the headline: “Bills would ban Nestle from distributing Michigan water outside Great Lakes watershed.”

The story reported: “New bills in the Michigan legislature would limit distribution of the state’s water resources to the Great Lakes watershed by removing an exemption that currently allows companies like Nestle to ship bottled water outside the basin.”

The MLive article also quoted the lead sponsor of the current water bill, State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, who referred to Nestle’s operations as a theft of water.

Much of the reporting on Nestle focused solely on the amount of water it uses – about 400 million gallons a year. But even Nestle critics admit that compared to all the water in Michigan, Nestle’s operation is the proverbial drop in the bucket.

But without information about the amount of water available in this state, residents won’t know how small a player Nestle is in terms of water leaving the Great Lakes watershed. Often, the comments of Nestle opponents reflect this lack of appreciation for the magnitudes involved.

For example former Republican congresswoman Candice Miller expressed outrage in a Michigan Radio interview about Nestle’s Michigan operation, calling it “absolutely appalling.” She repeated, several times, the statement that Nestle uses 400 million gallons a year and appeared to not realize how little that is when the broader context is included.

Miller said Nestle was “allowed 250 gallons per minute, which is enormous in itself. Now to 250 to 400 gallons per minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Some have criticized the Michigan Capitol Confidential articles and Facebook post for comparing the enormity of the water leaving via the St. Lawrence River and falling onto this state via annual rainfall with the estimated 400 million gallons of water Nestle uses every year in Michigan. They all share one thing in common — they are all part of the Great Lakes Basin.

Nestle opponents like the nonprofit activist group Freshwater Future exploit this absence of context with statements that compare water to gold as a natural resource.

“Cases like Nestlé may seem like an blip on the map in this context, but they reflect a deeper cultural anxiety about a potential future in which water is the new gold and the Great Lakes the world’s largest gold mine—and potentially the site of the world’s largest gold rush,” the non-profit states. “But this demonstrates why the gold metaphor is incomplete. Unlike gold, water is essential to life; water cannot be substituted; water is not a good we can easily adjust our consumption of as prices rise and fall. This water war in mid-Michigan is a harbinger of the violent 21st-century wars that many predict will be fought over water resources.”

For now, there are no wars being fought over Michigan’s water. Not while 55 trillion gallons of “gold” fall on this state every year, called rain by residents.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.