Bottled Water in the Great Lakes

There is a common concern around water privatization in the Great Lakes. Commercial bottled water is at the heart of this issue but is also involves looking at public water systems, water access and equity, and legal standards. There are also cultural and societal roles involved.  It's a complicated matter that experts and advocates are trying to address. Great Lakes Commons helps connect communities around shared water issues like this. We recently hosted a conversation with experts and advocates from Michigan and Ontario. The goal of the meeting was to identify, learn and share key ideas and strategies on how to address bottled water and water privatizations in the Great Lakes region.

The complexity of the issue commands a discussion that touches on the many interrelated subjects that influence how we, as a society, make decisions about water. These topics range from water law and Indigenous Rights, to issues of water quality and water permitting. Several insightful themes and challenges surfaced during the discussion.

Key themes:

Currently the “burden of proof” is on local communities to show harm and inequalities in bottled water permitting. Citizens are required to educate local government, pay for scientific research/consultants, raise awareness within the community. These activities take financial resources and time which can be a challenge for the predominantly small, rural communities that companies generally target. At the same time, boisterous public opposition can force permitting agencies to prioritize public involvement in the decision making process.

Addressing equitable water access in our society is a matter of governance and cultural values. Citizens in Detroit, MI have their water shut off and people in Flint, MI don’t have clean water. Nestle, a private international company, on the other hand is able to pull almost a million gallons per day out of aquifers in Michigan and sell it for a profit. This inequity is also prevalent in Ontario, where there is currently a lack of clean drinking water on First Nation Reserves, but private companies are continually allowed to bottle water for profit. These are examples of gross inequity that needs to be addressed from both water governance and cultural perspectives.

Additional themes and challenges identified included:

  • Water access is an issue of equity and equality;
  • Need to take the opportunities to reform the permitting system;

  • Deregulation of water lead to private interests being put ahead of public interest;

  • Bottled water has become a cultural norm that need to be reformed;

  • Permitting details are important (rules, process, policy).
  • Privatization, commodification, diversions, pollution of water are threats to Great Lakes water;
  • Recent expansion of land ownership to water (pushed by industry interests) takes water governance away from common law that protects public interests;

  • Indigenous rights are being overlooked and meaningful involvement in decision making process is needed;

  • Water is a commons source for all of life rather than a resource;

Participants also identified key information needed to to effectively move forward:

  • Social and policy models/examples to address gaps in water allocation, stakeholder engagement, Indigenous Rights, and equity;
  • Better understanding on Court rulings and inconsistencies on water rights, privatization, and public rights, to help inform current legal challenges to water taking permits;

  • A framework for how we talk about the issue that puts more emphasis on  ‘water is life’ concept and less emphasis on the management of water as a natural resource;

  • Best practices and tools on how to achieve political will for making decisions and applying regulations that put the public and environment ahead of corporate interests;

  • Need for holistic water strategy that addresses gaps in permit process and flaws in current water governance.


Jim Olson (FLOW), Peggy Case (Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation), Sheri Longboat (Professor at University of Guelph), Libby Carlaw (Save Our Water), Arlene Slocombe, Rob Case and Mike Nagy (Wellington Water Watchers), Mark Calzavara (Council of Canadians), Stacey Mortimer and Becky BigCanoe (Water is Life coalition for water justice), Ashley Wallis (Environmental Defence), Paul Baines and Luke Evans (Great Lakes Commons), with Dave Rosenthal observing (Great Lakes Today).

The  Great Lakes Commons Map  marks the sources of bottled water for Ontario. Get in touch to help us map the remaining permits throughout the Great Lakes. 

The Great Lakes Commons Map marks the sources of bottled water for Ontario. Get in touch to help us map the remaining permits throughout the Great Lakes.