Great Lakes in need of security

When we think of Michigan, many of us conjure up an image of a broken down, rust-belt economy, or a dysfunctional Detroit government or perhaps even the wonderfully evocative label “Militiagan.” But when I think of our state, I picture beautiful blue bodies of fresh water extending out to every horizon.

The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact is a federally approved agreement between eight American states and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, which identified our state as uniquely blessed and helped redefine Michigan, not as an embarrassment, but as an embarrassment of riches.

Approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2008, this pact regulates drainage of the Great Lakes by the U.S. and Canada and requires both countries to promote water conservation throughout the region. The compact represents an international response to one Canadian corporation’s attempt in 1998 to export more than 150 million gallons of fresh water per day from the Great Lakes to Asia.

But while this agreement restricts large-scale water diversions such as tanker loads and pipelines, it still allows unlimited amounts of bottled water to be removed from the Great Lakes basin. And that allowance turns out to be a Tsunami-sized loophole, which many bottled water companies are now exploiting.

This apparently ludicrous loophole was inserted when the compact was being negotiated and was originally created to exclude commercial products containing Great Lakes water from the ban.

This exemption seemed to make sense at the time since many manufacturers and agricultural businesses use water to produce the goods they sell. But the bottled water loophole actually has dangerous and far-reaching implications for the safety of the Great Lakes region and its people.

The common interpretation of the Great Lakes Compact is that it not only allows bottled water manufacturers to remove unlimited amounts of water from the region, but it also effectively defines our water as a commercial commodity to be exploited by corporations, rather than as a natural resource controlled by citizens.

In an insightful Detroit News editorial this summer, environmentalist and author Dave Dempsey noted the compact allows state and provincial governments to restrict the export of bottled water but so far, none have passed laws that address this outrageous corporate windfall.

“In a century of worldwide water scarcity,” Dempsey argued, “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.”

According to Dempsey, most politicians, business leaders and environmentalists have dismissed concerns about this bottled water loophole.

“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,” Dempsey said.

But there are two significant legislative exceptions to Dempsey’s pessimistic assessment, which have been introduced by Michigan lawmakers in recent months. And both of these attempts to close the flood gates of the Great Lakes basin to corporate raiders deserve the support of every state resident.

In late June, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) introduced House Resolution 551, which states that in ratifying the Great Lakes Compact last fall, “Congress expressly prohibited Great Lakes water from being sold, diverted or exported outside of the Great Lakes basin,” according to Rep. Stupak’s press release.

“There is no question that Congress intended for the compact to protect Great Lakes water but the wording of the compact leaves some question,” Stupak said. “That is why I have introduced this resolution to put Congress on record in opposition to the exploitation of Great Lakes waters.”

Stupak’s resolution would also help the U.S. avoid legal confrontations with multi-national corporations and foreign governments over the diversion of Great Lakes water. International treaties such as NAFTA and governing bodies like the World Trade Organization often restrict the ability of individual nations to regulate cross-border trade in commodities – regardless of the health, security and environmental impacts on those nations.

And in early September, Michigan Rep. Dan Scripps (D-Leland) announced he would introduce legislation to “clarify that Michigan’s waters are subject to the public trust, placing them under the shared ownership of the people of Michigan for the benefit of present and future generations,” according to the Web site

“This legislation will erase any doubt that the waters of Michigan belong to the citizens of Michigan, and that Michigan citizens must continue to have a say in protecting this resource.” Scripps reportedly said at a luncheon for the Leelanau Independent Women for Democratic Action last month.

Efforts such as these by U.S. Rep. Stupak and Michigan Rep. Scripps are important first steps in redefining the fresh water of our Great Lakes as a natural resource in the public trust, rather than a commercial commodity under the control of corporations and international arbiters.

Unless voters in those states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes work together to secure our legal rights to the water of our region, we will be left high and dry by a thirsty world already hauling away our precious liquid legacy by the millions of gallons every day – absolutely free of charge.

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