Despite federal protection, Great Lakes remain troubled waters
Written by Detroit News   
Friday, 07 August 2009 09:37
If there's one sure bipartisan thing in the environmental politics of Michigan, it's this: The message to anyone outside the state is "hands off" the waters of the Great Lakes. No Michigan politician would dare advocate exporting Great Lakes water to thirsty Texans, for example. And no politician would issue a news release touting a proposal to sell a share of Lake Michigan to T. Boone Pickens.

And yet, unless action occurs soon in both Washington, D.C., and Lansing, we'll end up with exactly those policies in place -- with potentially monumental consequences for the Lakes and for Michigan.

How did we get into this mess?

Turn the clock back a little more than 11 years to the spring of 1998. A Canadian company called the Nova Group got a permit from Ontario to ship up to 50 freighters of Lake Superior water a year to prospective customers in Asia. Public revulsion and outrage stopped the proposal cold. Chastened by this and aware of water scarcity in the U.S. Sun Belt, the governors and Canadian provincial premiers vowed to come up with an airtight legal strategy to stop any sales of Great Lakes waters as a product and any diversions. It took them seven years to come up with a draft plan to run around the region's legislative bodies.

The resulting eight-state Great Lakes Compact, approved by Congress and former President George W. Bush last year, was widely publicized as the final answer to defending the Lakes from the threat of exports. Some news accounts went so far as to say the compact banned water diversions. But that's not quite the case.

Instead, the compact tightens but does not eliminate the conditions for water diversions. One Wisconsin community has already exploited the compact for a new diversion and another is applying. That's permissible because the pact enables new and increased diversions for communities close to the Lakes.

Even worse, the compact may have given legal recognition to the waters of the Great Lakes Basin as a product -- and thus eligible to be bought, owned and sold by T. Boone Pickens or Tibetan Mountain Waters.
Double-edged exemption

It does that by exempting water in products from the diversion ban. That makes sense when you're talking about water in Michigan agricultural products, automobiles or paint. You don't want these Michigan-made commodities to be stopped at the boundary of the Great Lakes Basin. A struggling state economy would collapse.

The exemption, though, is dangerous in that it opens the door to claims that water itself, when packaged and intended for consumers, is free from the diversion and export ban. That means a giant water bottling company can take, sell for its own profit, and export anywhere in the world as much Great Lakes water as it can pump.

States can act to restrict exports of bottled water, but none have, and none are inclined to.

The exemption sets up the strange paradox that exporting freighters full of water is illegal under the compact, while exporting freighters full of bottles of water with the same total volume is lawful.

This is an anti-democratic change. A new law that explicitly condones trade in Great Lakes water would never get past the people of the region. But that's exactly what the compact does. It sets up private water barons foreign and domestic to make a bid for ownership through export of Great Lakes water -- and to sue for billions of dollars in taxpayer compensation if they're denied. In a century of worldwide water scarcity, there are mammoth profits to be made in capturing and selling the public's water to customers wherever they are. Making that possible may be the most foolish and self-destructive policy the Great Lakes states have ever approved.
Concerns underplayed

To be sure, concerns about this gap in the compact are a minority view brushed aside by most environmental groups and the Great Lakes business community alike. They variously say the compact's benefits outweigh this danger, dispute that sale of the Great Lakes is made a threat by the Compact, or point to grocery shelves full of plastic water bottles and say the tanker has left the port as far as water sales are concerned. It's too late to stop the sale of the Great Lakes, they say.

But these voices do not speak for the citizens of the Great Lakes Basin. The majority would not compromise public ownership and control of the Great Lakes.

The compact last fall cleared the U.S. Senate on a unanimous voice vote and by a 374-23 vote in the U.S. House. But one of those 23 was tough, independent northern Michigan U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, whose district has more than 1,500 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. And he's not done with the compact yet.

In June, Stupak introduced a resolution that would clarify the intent of Congress in approving the compact last year. House Resolution 551 would make it clear that Washington did not mean to "establish that waters of the Great Lakes Basin are produced as a product or have entered into commerce or constitute a good or commodity under the North American Free Trade Agreement."

Although Stupak's colleagues and environmental groups have not stampeded to sign onto his resolution, it is simple common sense that should be rapidly enacted.

"Protecting water from unregulated sale and export is critical," says Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University and a longtime participant in the talks that led to the Compact and now its implementation. "(The) resolution would make clear that the Great Lakes Compact was never intended to undermine state authority to restrict water exports to protect the Great Lakes and other natural resources."

Hall adds the resolution would directly address any concerns that the Great Lakes Compact makes Great Lakes water a commodity. The attorneys and members of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation who fought Nestle Waters to a draw in a court fight over that company's mining of Michigan water agree.

To boil it down to basics, the choice is this: We can choose to deal only with water diversions in pipelines or aqueducts that are prohibitively expensive and not likely to materialize soon, or also confront those who view the Great Lakes as a potential export profit center.

If the lesson of Michigan's history of 19th-century forest exploitation should teach us anything, it's that turning over resources that are the property of all citizens to private extractors can be catastrophic. In this case, dramatic declines in the Great Lakes would follow.

In these profoundly painful economic times, Michigan needs to keep public control of all water -- the source of life and an essential ingredient in economic growth -- and to attract new business and citizens here with our abundant resource, rather than sell it away. Bart Stupak has the right idea.
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