Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars

As he prepares to run for Governor of Michigan, current Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (Dem) has been campaigning for a 10-cents-per-bottle tax or fee on companies that sell bottled water from Michigan. He estimates it would raise about $118 million a year, enough money to restore the unfunded Michigan Promise scholarship and put $18 million toward programs for protecting wetlands and the Great Lakes. Taxing bottled water companies to fund education and ecology? Sounds good to me.

The biggest and loudest opponent of the idea, so far, is Ice Mountain, a Michigan-based bottled water company owned by the American Water Division of Franco-Swiss giant Nestle. The company is making two moves to protect its privatized grasp on Michigan waters. First, Ice Mountain lawyers and the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association, a trade group) have been arguing that Cherry’s proposed tax is unconstitutional because Michigan’s state constitution prohibits any tax on sales of food products since 1974. Meanwhile, Ice Mountain PR has been hard at work picking at the special wounds of Michigan’s suffering economy with a widely circulated press release claiming that the tax would raise prices for consumers, raise costs for producers, and threaten jobs. In Michigan, heavily deindustrialized, with one of the highest unemployment rates of any U.S. state and a state government struggling financially, Ice Mountain knows that if it cries about increased costs and job loss, people will take notice. Two shrewd moves to protect the privatization of water, indeed.

But the tax is also being criticized by more publicly-minded critics. Some are concerned that it will prevent Michigan citizens from having access to clean water, especially where tap water is considered unsafe and residents rely on bottle water. Others are concerned that taxing water will add fuel to the fire of privatization, making it seem natural and normal that water is a commodity to be sold, rather than a common resource for public use and enjoyment.

Lt. Governor Cherry has responded to these charges in remarkably anti-enclosure terms (see this story on MLive):

Cherry said he knows putting a fee, or tax, on bottled water may be seen by some as turning water into a commodity. But he argues that businesses that draw and bottle groundwater from Michigan have already done that.
“This is a resource owned by all of us in Michigan,” he said. “And so in that context, if someone takes something that’s owned by everybody and sells it at a profit, it just seems to me to be logical that they have some obligation to reimburse those who own it.”
He said the Legislature has decided to let bottlers extract Michigan’s water without paying a fee, which encourages the use and sale of the state’s water.
“If you want to discourage it, you claim what’s rightfully yours — and that’s a portion of the money,” he said.
Cherry said he supports closing a loophole in the Great Lakes compact which allows shipment of Great Lakes water outside the basin as long as it’s in containers of less than 5.7 gallons.

Cherry’s argument that water is a public resource is refreshing and remarkable in these times when water is increasingly scarce, increasingly polluted, and increasingly captured and commodified by large corporations like Ice Mountain/Nestle. But Cherry’s campaign also needs to be kept in context: it is just another move in a long-standing battle for the water of the Great Lakes.

Peter Annin wrote his award-winning 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars (see his website here) to show how and why the region has become the target of such vicious water wars in the last several decades: the lakes hold 18% of the world’s surface fresh water (not including underground aquifers). Amidst a global water crisis, it is no wonder that corporations are working to snatch up this water, while locals fight to protect it. Questions of ownership and jurisdiction are difficult in the great lakes basin, however, which spans 7 U.S. states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) and sits astride the U.S.-Canadian border. Thus, on top of questions about whether water can and/or should be publicly or privately owned, there are questions here about which states, provinces and nations have claim to the waters as public property.

For more on water privatization and protection in the Great Lakes region, visit Save Michigan Water.

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One Comment on “Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars”

  1. P Says:

    Ok, so this is obviously a fairly complex issue, even if we’re just talking about privatization (as opposed to ecological concerns, etc.), and certainly interesting that Cherry has recognized resource privatization as the core issue.

    Once thing that caught my eye was the involvement of IBWA. At first, I was just sort of chortling about the need for a bottled water industry association – that they somehow are in need of collective lobbying. That, in turn, got me thinking about the odd space of private/collective action that is the industry association. These groups are collective organizations whose singular goal is to increase the private profitability of the (competing) corporations that make up a given industry.

    But is this sort of association conceptually different in any way than, say, a labor union? Is there something more contradictory (or at least complicated) about this intersection of private economic interest?


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