FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Big Rapids Area of Michigan is a land of lakes, streams, struggling farmers, and small towns. That's why some people say this large factory, with 100 employees and a promise of more jobs, is the biggest shot in the arm in decades. Last year, Nestle, the world's number one drinking water company, began bottling the Great Lakes states most abundant resource. The water is sold mainly in the Midwest under the label Ice Mountain. Calistoga, Poland Spring, and Perrier, are also brands of Nestle. The Swiss conglomerate holds a one-third share of the growing $7 billion a year market in bottled water. Here in rural Michigan, township supervisor Maxine McClelland says the new plant pays two to three times the prevailing wages.
MAXINE McCLELLAND, Township Official: I think they run about $13 to $24 an hour, and we've got plants here that are still paying not a whole lot over minimum wage. It's a good opportunity for more people to stay in the community, and it's... I just don't see any downside at all.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But that elation is not shared by everyone. The Nestle plant has spawned occasional protests and a new group, called Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, which has gone to court to stop Nestle. They fear the door could be open to water being privatized and diverted from the Great Lakes Basin.
SPOKESMAN: This is a typical well house right here for us. This is the well head itself. And you can see the eight-inch diameter stainless-steel casing.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nestle's source of water, up to 260 million gallons per year, comes from wells installed on land it has leased from a private owner. Critics say the company not only got $10 million in tax abatements to come here, it faces little oversight and threatens a delicate ecosystem. Terry Swier is a retired librarian.
TERRY SWIER: We want to leave a legacy. We want to know that we have worked as hard as we can for future generations. I mean, we live in Michigan. And it's water wonderland. We've always kind of taken it for granted. I have taken it for granted. But when you see something like this that has come into our community, we no longer can take it for granted.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For its part, Nestle says it has leased this property for 99 years. Spokeswoman Jane Lazgin says it, too, has every interest in preserving its water source for the future.
JANE LAZGIN: Well, we think of ourselves as a leader in environmental stewardship. We do this not only because it is in our own self-interest to be sure that that spring is healthy and sustainable and safe and high quality, but it's also looking to the future. Sustainability is key.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nestle says it has installed an extensive monitoring system designed to ensure its withdrawals don't depress water levels in the nearby lake and stream, and that the spring is being recharged.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So, you've had this monitoring system now for a couple of years.
GREG FOX, Nestle Waters: Yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What is it telling you?
GREG FOX: Well, what it's telling us right now is that there's really no unusual change to surface water or ground water elevations. These things change, the surface water elevations will change over time depending on the season, as well as the ground water elevation will change over time depending on the season. So, what we're seeing now is basically what we've seen for the last two years.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, the conservation group says figures Nestle has shared publicly show that water levels could diminish dangerously if Nestle's withdrawals reach their allowed limits, especially in periods of drought. The group's attorney, Jim Olson, says an even bigger issue, and a dangerous precedent, is whether Nestle has any right to be here to sell water it gets virtually free. Olson says ground water, like lakes and streams, whether on public or private land, should belong to all citizens.
JIM OLSON, Attorney: Is it reasonable to the average lay person that a distant company could move into their community, stick a pipe in the ground next to a stream, drop the flow of the stream, drop the level of the lake, okay, and profit at huge amounts? I mean, this stuff is two or three cents a gallon cost to that company. And, you know, what does it sell for? And the community has no control over that, not the state, not the local community.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, so far Olson has failed to stop the project in court. Lakes and streams are protected as public trusts in the public domain, but the court agreed with Nestle, which argued that ground water use in Michigan, as in other states, is governed only by so-called "reasonable use laws." That is, it doesn't deprive access to other water users, and the company says it creates local economic benefit.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bill Rustem, a lobbyist for Nestle at the state capital, says the company easily meets that requirement.
BILL RUSTEM, Nestle Lobbyist: The question in my mind comes down to: Where is the value added? In other words, where does the manufacturing facility stand? Where does it... where are the taxes paid, where are the jobs created, where is the investment? If in fact the value added occurs within the Great Lakes Basin, that is a consumptive use, the Great Lakes Basin benefits.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Rustem and Nestle officials point out that many cities and industries along the Great Lakes use much more water than the bottling plant-- the makers of beer, soft drinks, shampoo, even farmers. But Olson says most of the others use water to make another product, unlike Nestle.
JIM OLSON: It's purely a diversion of water. You're taking the water from the lake, putting it in a bottle, and exporting, okay? Now, is there any value added? Not to the water. Is there value added to the water with coke -- of course; of course. The value added is in the product itself, not in the packaging. Packaging doesn't add value.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At the heart of the growing debate over water use, is a philosophical difference on how this very essence of life is perceived, according to Sandra Archibald, an economist at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
SANDRA ARCHIBALD, Economist: People who use water in industry and commerce see water as a commodity. It's an input into the production process. It's an input into making beer. It's an input into agriculture. And in that sense, they don't see why water can't be traded as any other commodity is. They look at it in that manner. But there are people for whom water is a very different kind of resource and should be treated differently. And people shouldn't be making profit on it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Olson says he's not necessarily opposed to bottling and selling water, but first, he says, the legislature needs to assert state ownership of all ground water.
JIM OLSON: We're starting from the right premise, okay? You're starting from the premise that water is a common and it's owned by everyone, and our representatives decide when and if there's a public... a sufficient public benefit and whether there are sufficient safeguards.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The idea of revisiting, if not revamping, Michigan's water laws has support from all parties, including Nestle, which has faced battles in several states over its water use. In an increasingly parched planet that's made drinking water a lucrative business, this region can expect more battles. And the Great Lakes basin contains 20 percent of the planet's fresh water.