Battling Over Bottled Water
One of the last places in the world one would expect to find a battle over water is Michigan. Michigan, who once displayed “Water Wonderland” on its license plates, features more than 11,000 lakes and 36,000 miles of streams and one is never more than six miles from enjoying any one of them (Michigan Outdoors). Why then has a dispute over water rights escalated into several lawsuits? The purpose of this paper is to analyze the water rights case of Nestle versus Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) from the perspective of the libertarian, utilitarian, and Rawlsian theories of justice.
During the year 2000, Ice Mountain, a Nestle water bottling company, moved into Mecosta County, Michigan. Many Mecosta residents were thrilled to learn that Nestle decided to build their water bottling plant in their county. The plant employs about a hundred people and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in local taxes, much to the delight of some residents and local government. They also built a 12-mile pipeline between their plant and 850 acres of private property for the purpose of pumping and selling up to 262 million gallons of water per year, much to the displeasure of the MCWC. The MCWC filed suit against Nestle alleging that the company had gone beyond reasonable use and is endangering the surrounding environment and future uses of the water. Scientists reported an adverse environmental impact, including a lowered water table and northern pike spawning difficulties. Nestle and local government officials, however, contend that the water bottling plant provides economic benefits to the community that far outweigh the small amount of water that is pumped which was reported at less than 1% of the annual recharge rate (Shaw & Barry, 2010). Is it fair to the owners of this private property to restrict the use of its water? Alternatively, does the community have a right to existing and future uses of water that usurps private property ownership rights? The Libertarian Approach
Libertarians believe people have an inherent right to live as they please without interference as long as he or she does not prevent others from doing the same. Property rights are paramount to libertarians. Libertarians feel that property owners have the right to use their property in any way they choose as long as the property had been acquired legitimately. Libertarians believe free markets are effective and necessary to exercise the fundamental rights of individuals. In the Nestle water case, a libertarian would likely oppose the MCWC for the libertarian supports a laissez-faire capitalistic economy. Even in the case of an increasingly scarce public resource such as water, the Cato Institute appears to support water markets for water management: “The demands of current and projected water management challenges can best be met through a greater reliance on water markets for water management. Specifically, water management must shift toward recognition of transferable rights in water that facilitate voluntary exchanges and the market pricing of water resources” (Adler, 2008).
Having a strong commitment to a free market, libertarians generally would not require Nestle to help the community or environment maintain its water levels. According to Shaw and Barry (2010), this staunch position indicates their commitment to property rights. However, the libertarian would have to admit that Nestle’s water rights should be comparable with the water rights of the neighboring property owners.
A potential problem with the libertarian approach is that, according to Shaw and Barry (2010), free markets do not always lead to the distribution of commodities where they are needed the most. For example, although Ethiopia, Ireland, and Bengal had no shortage of actual food, they experienced famines because some their population could not afford to...