Traverse City Group Meets to Fix the Great Lakes Compact

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.

The quote has been used and re-used a multitude of times, a billion times, a trillion times, but the simple, powerful truth in Margaret Mead’s words can never be overused. And the quote is especially apt as one considers an event on Sunday afternoon, November 16, 2008, at the State Theater in downtown Traverse City.

Titled Maintaining the Flow: For the Love of the Great Lakes, the event is the first meeting of what planners hope will become a broad populist movement throughout the Great Lakes basin. The initial goal is to pass a Michigan constitutional amendment, either through the legislature or by popular referendum, that would accomplish two things: No. 1, eliminate what some environmentalists feel is a dangerous loophole in the recently passed legislation designed to protect waters of the Great Lakes basin and No. 2, clearly establish that Michigan citizens own their water and only they have the right to determine whether and who would be able to sell it for private gain.

The legislation of concern, the Great Lakes Compact, is now federal law after having been ratified by legislatures in the eight states with land in the Great Lakes basin. The law prevents diversions of water to outside the basin except under some very specific and controlled conditions. But the law allows companies to ship water out of the basin in containers of 5.7 gallons or smaller if the diversion does not cause certain, specified environmental damages. Buried in the fine print, the Compact by definition also excepts "water produced as a product" from the ban on diversions. “This sets up a climate where hungry states, corporations, or nations outside the basin could tap Great Lakes water if it is packaged in any size containers,” says environmental attorney James Olson, an organizer of the November 16 event.

Not all enviros oppose the law. Several of the state’s leading environmental groups were involved in negotiations that drafted the law and signed off on the proposal. Many environmentalists felt secure enough knowing that states still have the authority to say no to any specific proposal—including a 5.7 gallon container proposal—if it does not pass an environmental impact analysis. “But the focus of their negotiations concentrated on significant environmental impacts, not who will own or control the waters of the Great Lakes in the future,” Olson saysOlson has been an unflagging opponent of the loophole ever since it appeared in draft Michigan legislation back in 2005, and he says that to fully understand the danger of the loophole, you have to consider it in light of international trade laws, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Olson worries about the day when these two bodies of legislation collide in court. Say a state wants to deny a proposal that involves putting water into 5.7-gallon containers, but the water company sues for access to the water under fair trade provisions of NAFTA. Olson feels that if water produced and packaged as a product can be exempted from the ban on diversions, NAFTA has the stronger language. If water companies win under free trade law, Michigan citizens steadily lose ownership rights over their water—companies have more authority to insist on pumping; the state’s citizens have less authority to say no.

What’s more, Olson says, because environmental impact is a standard that water companies must meet under the Great Lakes Compact, how would a state defend a decision to deny a pipeline that carries 200,000 gallons a day if it had allowed a bottle company to pump 200,000 gallons a day  and the impacts are the same ? So the compact as written is a slippery slope that could eventually allow pipelines or tankers to also take water if court decisions go the wrong way, Olson says. Strong, clear language in a Michigan constitutional amendment would solve these issues, at least within the confines of our borders, he believes.

Does Olson’s group stand a chance? The odds are daunting, but Olson views the aim as “essential.” The national Congress and eight state legislatures passed the law. A Michigan constitutional amendment, as tough as that will be, is only the beginning. If the Michigan legislature refuses to act—very likely—Olson and his colleagues intend to take the choice to the people. The road will be long. Margaret Mead’s spirit will be cheering them on.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse 

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