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Water rights prove complex global topic

SCOTT-ROOT

A great deal is at stake for commercial and recreational users of the Great Lakes.

PAUL M. WALSH / Associated Press Enlarge

It was an odd sight, even in the wacky world of billboard advertising.

Four guys with straws were sucking water out of the Great Lakes.

The year was 2001. Great Lakes governors and premiers had just met in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that June for a historic summit aimed at heading off any threats to siphon water out of the lakes.

A nonprofit group called Citizens for Michigan's Future came up with a billboard ad for portions of I-94 and I-96 that depicted a Texas cowboy, a Utah skiier, a California surfer, and a New Mexico hombre slurping away from a trough that is drawn in the shape of lakes Michigan and Huron.

Beneath it was the phrase: "Back off Suckers. Water Diversion ... The Last Straw."

People in all parts of the world seem paranoid about water - or, rather, their fears of running out of a vital resource they perceive to be rightfully theirs.

The Great Lakes region is no exception. Hence a set of proposed agreements called Annex 2001 was drawn up. The agreement sought to unite Great Lakes governors and premiers on a regional water plan that would replace a 1985 charter among governors. New versions went out for 60 days of public comment last week.

Political observers mused about how President Bush found time during the height of his 2004 re-election campaign to proclaim that he would not allow Great Lakes water to be diverted to the parched Southwest. He made that campaign promise in Traverse City, Mich., near the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The irony of that pledge was that in July, 2001, only a month after Great Lakes governors had met in Niagara Falls, Mr. Bush had told a group of foreign journalists at a special White House gathering that he wouldn't turn down Canadian water for his home state of Texas if he ever had the chance to get it.

The remark took off like wildfire in the Canadian press that summer and administration officials declined to say if it was a flippant remark intended only as a joke.

Water rights are complex by any measure and to some people, Annex 2001 doesn't simplify things.

Consider the parallel plights of two major employers separated by the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.

On the west side of the lake lies Milwaukee, home of the Miller Brewing Co. For decades, Miller has practically opened a spigot to get treated Lake Michigan water from the city of Milwaukee.

Miller then adds malt, barley, and hops so it can brew and bottle products to sell everywhere.

Sounds easy, right? Well, about 150 miles to the east lies Nestle North America's Ice Mountain facility in western Michigan's Mecosta County. Nestle doesn't make beer. It simply bottles water.

Lawyers for Nestle, a Michigan citizens' group, and state government have locked horns over the amount of water Ice Mountain bottles.

Most of it comes from the ground, not the lake itself. There's a difference of opinion over how much of that groundwater actually replenishes Lake Michigan, but that's not the only issue.

On May 27, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued a moratorium against new or increased bottled water operations. That came after Nestle had entered into an agreement with the city of Evart, Mich., to buy its water and keep Ice Mountain afloat. Nestle pursued the Evart water because a judge had ordered the company to stop drawing groundwater, citing potential adverse effects.

The state allowed Nestle to continue buying Evart's water, but ordered that all Ice Mountain sales from that facility be confined to the eight Great Lakes states. Nestle fired back with a lawsuit against the state on June 17, claiming it has the right to sell Ice Mountain wherever it wants.

Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, has led the Water Management Working Group that the Great Lakes governors' council authorized to write Annex 2001.

He said beer gets an easier break than bottled water under Annex 2001. Beer is considered a product. Bottled water is just bottled water.

George Kuper claims he's as confused as anyone. And he shouldn't be.

As president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, Mr. Kuper has studied Annex 2001 intensely from Day One. He's traveled throughout the region on behalf of industry and had a seat at the table of an advisory panel that reported to the working group.

He said the focus for protecting Great Lakes water "ought to be not on locking it up, but on how to use it."

"The whole theory of water as a reusable commodity seems to be missing. The whole focus seems to be on how to lock it up and it drives me crazy," he said.

Legal scholars, public officials, tribal leaders, and environmental activists take differing views. They question everything from respect for nature to the nitty-gritty science of water return-flow concepts.

Some activists concede that Annex 2001, ironically, has been one of the few proposals with an environmental theme that has splintered environmental groups themselves.

"Is it perfect? No. But it is going to be pretty strong," said Molly Flanagan, a former Ohio activist and a current board member of Great Lakes United, a binational group that has been active on the diversion issue for years.

"We think we'll have pretty good justification to tell the rest of the world they can't use Great Lakes water," she said.

The most radical - and legally risky - change to the proposal is the language calling for an outright ban on diversions, observers said.

A legal team advising the Council of Great Lakes Governors in 1999 said that such a ban would violate interstate commerce laws and thus be unconstitutional in America. So no ban was proposed, to the dismay of many Canadians. The new version calls for a ban with limited exceptions.

Mr. Kuper said the ban was proposed "to get Canada back at the table."

Mr. Speck declined to go that far. But in past months, he noted Canada's opposition. At various junctures, he said U.S. officials may have to exclude Canada if differences couldn't be resolved - something they wanted to avoid, because Canadians were bypassed for the 1985 charter.

Annex 2001 started coming together in 1998, after a group of Canadian businessmen called the Nova Group had obtained a permit to export Lake Superior water to Asia. The permit was eventually relinquished, but governors sought legal counsel because they believed that case had exposed the region's vulnerability.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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