Jan 18, 2008
Great Lakes Water Compact Still Spurs Controversy

Michigan – along with the other seven states and two Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes Basin – is either undertaking one of the greatest environmental protection and conservation measures in the history of the world, or participating in one of the biggest scare-driven boondoggles of all time.

You could choose your side during a contentious half-day session at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Mich., in early December.

The day before, the Michigan Legislature had moved one step closer toward a historic measure, passing from committees the critical bills needed to solidify the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

It was pretty well conceded that the full Michigan Legislature would pass the measure and the governor would sign it. Two other states, Minnesota and Illinois, and the two provinces, Ontario and Quebec, have already done so. In Indiana and Pennsylvania, lawmakers are considering the measure; in New York, it has passed both chambers but not been signed into law; in Wisconsin and Ohio, it’s still in the talking stage.

When all the states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes have passed the compact, Congress must approve it to give it the force of federal law. But there is still some distance to go and lots of forums in which to carry on the argument.

In addition to the question of the Great Lakes Compact, the Michigan Legislature has been running over with new laws regulating the state’s water and its users.

The two chief antagonists in the EXPO discussion were Jay Lehr of Columbus, Ohio, a featured speaker at the EXPO, an expert in groundwater issues and a critic of “politicized environmental issues,” and Jim Bredin, assistant director of the Office of the Great Lakes in the Michigan Governor’s office and a proponent of the compact.

The key feature of the compact is that it would ban diversion of water from the basin into other watersheds, except when that water is contained in products like apples, beer, vegetables and milk. It can’t be piped away or hauled away in tankers, although there is still ongoing controversy about bottled water. Currently, big bottles – bigger than 20 liters – can’t be hauled off, and Michigan has placed limits on a large water bottler taking water from wells.

Lehr started the discussion in an assertive way.

“I hope Congress and the other states will have more sense than the Michigan Legislature,” Lehr said. “We don’t need new laws to protect the Great Lakes.”

He said that Michigan citizens have been victims of scare tactics. “You are the most water-rich state in the nation, but you’re being treated as if you were in a desert.”

The compact also compels states to address water issues related to pollution and water use, and the Michigan Legislature passed several laws that impose some limits, require registration of wells and in other ways govern the withdrawal of water from the Great Lakes and the state’s streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater. Irrigators fear they could be deprived of water for crop production.

There is much disagreement over the so-called consumptive use of water by growing crops and of the net effect irrigation or crop growth has on the loss of water from the region.

Irrigators fear that, as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner put it, there’s “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

The Great Lakes is the largest basin of fresh water in the world, Lehr said, It contains some 300 quadrillion gallons of water and pours out, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, some 237 billion gallons per day. Despite the activities of irrigators and others, water continues to pour over Niagara Falls. There is no evidence that consumptive use has tapped into the basin’s stored water by exceeding the billions of gallons of annual replenishment from rainfall.

Michigan citizens, Lehr said, have been scared into the belief that political pressures from a growing population in the sunny, arid American Southwest might lead to a federal-led water transfer system to water the Western deserts. While Congress, 20 years ago, agreed that such a diversion would never occur and has agreed to let the Great Lakes states manage the water, Michigan citizens wanted a better guarantee. But, Lehr said, “the day of mega water projects is over. If Arizona wants water, the Mississippi River is bigger in outflow and a lot closer. “

Lehr argued that Michigan, lying in the heart of the Great Lakes, has access to an abundant resource and is in fact shooting itself in the foot, giving away its natural power to the federal government and to other states with less access to the water. The state is limiting its right to use a resource it already controls, he said. Other states with smaller interests would have equal power.

He criticized the Michigan Farm Bureau for choosing not to fight for a larger, abundant-water principle but instead deciding to settle for a place at the table and a voice in setting the rules and regulations that regulate water use and limit its use by Michigan farmers.

Dipping his toe into deeper waters, he plunged ahead. He compared the Great Lakes to the atmosphere and said that it was “patently absurd” to think that we can alter the Great Lakes by human activities – any more than we can cause atmospheric changes that lead to global warming.

When Jim Bredin took the podium, there were lots of points for counterattack, especially Lehr’s assertion that the Great Lakes – or the atmosphere – are just too large to be affected by human beings.

Man’s activities have altered the Great Lakes, as the presence of zebra mussels, sea lampreys, alewives and mercury in fish attest.

Bredin also said the federal government is not a party to the compact. Over the years, many states have made agreements with other states and turned to the federal government to give them the force of law.

Because of the involvement of Canadian provinces, the compact is unusual in that it crosses an international border but does not involve treaties between countries.

While the states involved have some equal powers, such as a right to veto proposed large water diversions anywhere in the basin, they do not have equal access to Great Lakes Basin water. The key unit is the watershed, not the states. The agreement not to divert water from the Great Lakes Basin into other watersheds affects different states differently. The state of Michigan is more than 99 percent in the watershed. Ontario also has a large stake. Other states have smaller parts of the watershed within their borders, and they agree not to move water from the Great Lakes Basin into other watersheds, even those within their borders.

The huge Mississippi River watershed comes astonishingly close to the Great Lakes, and claims some Lake Michigan water through the Chicago River, which was channeled to flow backward a century ago.

Bredin said the other states were making a large potential sacrifice in agreeing not to move Great Lakes water to the nether reaches of their states. In effect, they agree not to take the water outside the watershed but must be content to use it for ports, shipping, sports and recreation.

In Ontario, a key compact provision affects the movement of water from Lake Huron across the peninsula to Lake Ontario, an intra-basin transfer that is prohibited under the compact. That same provision applies in Michigan, which borders on four of the five Great Lakes.

The compact is not totally about conserving Great Lakes water, Bredin said. It is also about conserving the Great Lakes as a treasure, preventing and remedying pollution, controlling invasive species by setting rules about water movement and release of ballast water from ships and in other ways managing the resource to keep it pristine as well as undiminished in volume.

The compact states that all “parties have a shared duty to protect, conserve, restore, improve and manage the renewable but finite waters of the Great Lakes.”

In recent years, the state of Michigan has increased regulations affecting not only Great Lakes water but all water, including groundwater, in the state. Lyndon Kelley, an Extension irrigation specialist with a shared appointment by Purdue University and Michigan State University, said riparian doctrine is gradually being modified. The modification is occurring through legislation and court decisions.

For example, irrigators – when using lakes – can find themselves subject to allocations when lake levels fall to “trigger” levels. When pumping from wells, they can find themselves replenishing water supplies to neighbors whose shallower wells are depleted. Pending legislation would make it illegal to diminish a stream or river to where it can’t sustain its customary number and species of fish. New regulations require reporting of well locations and of withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons of water a day. Permits are needed by large users, those withdrawing more than 2 million gallons a day.

Jon Bartholic and Jeremiah Asher, from the Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University, reported on their work to develop an assessment tool so those wanting to use water – for example, an irrigator planning to drill a well – could predict the impact of the well on his neighbors or on local streams and lakes.

The assessment tool relies on public information on well locations and depth, information about stream flows and fish populations in some 11,000 “segments” of rivers and streams across Michigan and general knowledge of the state’s geology and hydrology.

Those wishing to look at or use the assessment tool should visit the Web site, www.gwmap.rsgis.msu.edu.

This flurry of water-related activity was spurred by the proposal of the Great Lakes Compact. Whether a great conservation effort or a boondoggle, public awareness of being surrounded by an incredible resource has never been higher.

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