The battle over who gets which water isn’t going away anytime soon. Several weeks ago, I wrote about water rights on the Colorado River, where a complex system of allocations means that, in years when there is less flow than expected, a discrepancy arises between “paper water”—the amount people claim—and “wet water,” the amount that actually exists.
Recently Laura Sanchez, editor of our sister publication Water Efficiency, wrote about Google’s use of groundwater at a data center in South Carolina. It uses an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth every two days to cool its electrical equipment; nationwide, data centers use 165 billion gallons a year, and that amount is steadily increasing. People in the areas where the centers are located, although they might be glad to have the companies’ business, are getting more concerned about the effects on surface waters and aquifers
And this New York Times article explores in depth the controversy over Nestlé’s use of water in Michigan. The gist is that Nestlé is paying about $200 a year for a permit to pump millions of gallons of water—130 million gallons from one particular well alone—and is applying for a 60% increase on its pumping allowance. Local residents say the loss of so much water from the watershed is causing streams to shrink and harming local habitats, although some scientists and local officials say there is no evidence to show that the water loss is actually affecting the environment.
Unlike other situations where someone—a farmer, say—withdraws water but keeps it within the watershed, Nestlé is sending away the water it pumps. Its plant near Evart, MI, can package 4.8 million bottles of water a day, which are distributed throughout the Midwest and across the country. It’s the same sort of argument farmers in California have faced when they export alfalfa, a fairly water-intensive crop, to China: we aren’t getting that water back.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to rule soon on whether Nestlé can pump the additional water it’s asking for. Should the ultimate use of the water be a factor in such decisions? For example, if it’s going to be used for irrigating local crops or landscaping, and much of it will return to the aquifer or to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, should that outweigh the rights of someone who’s essentially exporting it?