Saturday, Sep 22, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Though the Compact is signed, Great Lakes are still at risk


THE Great Lakes Compact took 10 years to write and pass, generated a thousand adoring news releases, and now goes off to Washington for what the region hopes is quick approval by Congress. Great work, right? Not so fast - let's look past the self-congratulatory press releases.

Advertised as a guarantee of "a future in which the Great Lakes are forever sustained" (Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio), "a strong regional warning to chronically dry regions of the South and West" (Chicago Tribune), and "something that will protect the Great Lakes for generations to come" (Wisconsin state Sen. Scott Gunderson), it's actually a way for bottled-water companies to gain rights to sell Great Lakes water.

What's the problem? Doesn't this pact set standards to limit or deny major Great Lakes diversions? Yes, for the most part through a pipe, but not in small containers. Also not addressed is the connection between groundwater and the Great Lakes. Groundwater is tied to the Great Lakes, supplying much of their flow.

To understand the biggest problem, it's important to remember how the whole thing got started 10 years ago.

In May, 1998, it suddenly became known through media reports that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources granted a permit to a private firm, the Nova Group, that wanted to ship up to 50 tanker vessels of Lake Superior water each year to unidentified private customers in Asia.

Turning Great Lakes water into a product - especially the water of Lake Superior, the purest and coldest of the Lakes - fueled indignation among citizens on both sides of the international border. Chastened after public hearings and media scoldings, the Nova Group gave up its permit, and Lake Superior was given a reprieve.

To prevent the Great Lakes from ever being shipped out as a commercial product, the eight states plus Ontario and Quebec began drawing up a binding agreement to prevent it. But something happened in the 10 years it took to produce that agreement.

Instead of banning the conversion of the Great Lakes to a product, the Compact promotes selling it in small containers. The agreement allows pumping and packaging of Great Lakes water - in the hundreds of millions of gallons per project per year - as long as the packages are 5.7 gallons or less in volume. Michigan has already allowed this practice. Any of the eight Great Lakes states could have closed the loophole within their borders. None have.

It's not an accident that an agreement designed to forbid water exports from the Great Lakes by private entrepreneurs now condones them. The bottled-water industry, not a serious economic force in 1998, burst on the scene, lavished its favors on elected officials, and is now slurping up the benefits.

In the Ohio General Assembly, conservative compact opponents held up the agreement by requiring a vote on a state constitutional amendment that will give more ammunition to private interests who want to draw down Great Lakes and Ohio River groundwater. "The government is being encouraged to take people's property without paying for it," said State Sen. Timothy Grendell. "That is flat-out un-American."

The irony is that the compact and Ohio's proposed state constitutional amendment may confer a new private property right - to Nestle and other giant water-for-sale companies. That's something few Great Lakes citizens, but many Great Lakes lobbyists, can go for.

Under centuries of common law and common sense, water has been regarded as a publicly owned resource, too important for navigation, fishing, and ecology to be privatized. The compact turns that upside down and puts the essence of life up for sale to private parties. That is un-American.

Michigan, the Great Lakes State, generated its share of bubbly news releases when its compact approval and related legislation was signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Wednesday. But its water conservation laws remain some of the weakest in the region. They allow the draining of up to 25 percent of a stream, don't subject most major water withdrawals to any state approval, and lack funding for implementation and enforcement. And, for the second time in three years, the state has affirmed that a torrent of water flowing out of Michigan in high-priced containers is not actually an export barred by law.

The Great Lakes won't be lost tomorrow. But they won't be saved by the compact the day after tomorrow. It's time for the people of the Great Lakes region to assert their common ownership and control of the water that feeds them and the lakes. It will take a pitched battle and vast persistence in every state to make it happen.

The clock is ticking. Water is the resource that will bring economic opportunities to the Great Lakes region. The lakes contain 95 percent of U.S. and 18 percent of the world's surface fresh water. It makes no sense to sell them off in boatloads or truckloads of bottles.

One Michigan newspaper said, "Without the compact, the region's water could be put at risk." The problem is that with the compact, the region's water remains at risk and in some ways may be in greater danger than before. The work of assuring that the Great Lakes are not exported and drained is only beginning.

Dave Dempsey is author of "Great Lakes for Sale," published by University of Michigan Press this year. He was environmental policy adviser to Gov. James Blanchard of Michigan from 1983 to 1989.

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