The Great Lakes: Whose water is it anyway?


In a century of rising fresh water scarcity, a community of activists in the Great Lakes region is working to prevent private ownership of that water resource, although most mainstream conservation and environmental activists are focused elsewhere. If the activists’ concerns are valid, their battle has national as well as international implications.

The fear stems from the interaction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, other trade pacts, and the Great Lakes Compact ratified by the eight Great Lakes states and Congress last year. The definition of “product” in the Compact includes water once extracted from its natural state and location. A controversial Nestle Waters North America, Inc. bottled water operation in Michigan that is pumping hundreds of millions of gallons per year of state water heightens the concern.

The Michigan activists seek to close what they regard as a loophole in the Compact.  In addition to concerns about the product definition, they are troubled by a clause that treats water shipped in containers under 20 liters — no matter what the total volume and number of containers — as exempt from an otherwise strict limitation on new diversions and exports.

But other environmentalists dispute that these issues are a major concern. “The future of the Great Lakes is secure, with foresighted plans now locked in place to safeguard their waters and health for generations to come,” said the National Wildlife Federation.

To clarify that Great Lakes water remains a resource under public control, Michigan State Rep. Dan Scripps is preparing legislation that would reaffirm the common law of public trust. Meanwhile, members of the FLOW for Water coalition are attempting to build alliances with public water advocates from the arid West and eastern states where companies like Nestle are staking out claims on water.  Last year, Vermont enacted legislation declaring its groundwater to be a public trust resource.

Northern Michigan U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak this summer introduced a resolution to affirm that Congress did not intend to commercialize Great Lakes water when it approved the Compact in 2008. It has yet to receive a hearing.

Jim Olson, an attorney for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, recently wrote“Citizens, waterfront property owners, businesses and communities must reclaim the water. They must demand that our Supreme Court and Legislature restore the integrity of Michigan’s water law and prohibit the private plunder of our waters by international corporations. Water has been owned by the public and held in public trust for the benefit of citizens for centuries.”

Photo credit: David Riecks, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.

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