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On Protecting Water, Granholm Seems Surprisingly Unsure

Inconsistent steps on state’s liquid gold start second year

February 11, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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  When running for governor Jennifer Granholm said that because the state is at the center of the Great Lakes, “it is our solemn duty to protect our legacy, our endowment, and the character of Michigan by becoming the world’s best water guardians.”

Sometime this month, if last month’s promise holds, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm will tell lawmakers how she intends to prevent other states, foreign countries, and private companies from withdrawing fresh water from the Great Lakes basin without Michigan’s “explicit approval.” The proposal will be the governor’s most substantive try at modernizing Michigan’s 19th-century water policy, and the first mega-issue of her second year in office. On both scores, Michigan and its charismatic governor have a lot to win and a lot to lose.

The state sits at the center of the largest source of clean, fresh water on a planet that daily becomes drier and more polluted. Michigan’s fresh water is an economic asset more valuable than oil is to Saudi Arabia or timber is to Canada. And because state policy has always encouraged anybody to use all they want whenever they want, Michigan’s water is ever more vulnerable to exploitation, contamination, and waste.

Ms. Granholm knows the subject. During the 2002 campaign she outlined a 10-point Clean Water Forever Initiative that proposed to secure the Great Lakes’ water, promote conservation, manage watersheds, attack toxic pollution, protect drinking water, and appoint an ombudsman to help communities establish tough water quality standards and enforcement programs.

The Good, the Bad, the Inconsistent
Yet of all the significant issues that Ms. Granholm fielded so well in her first 14 months — including jobs, economic competitiveness, the deficit, highway repair, and rebuilding cities — none has generated such apparent inconsistency in the governor’s office as water.

On one hand, the governor took exceptional steps to protect water quality. Steven Chester, the director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, strengthened the state’s environmental enforcement office and is filing lawsuits against polluters, including a factory dairy farm in southern Michigan for polluting nearby streams and a prominent developer in northern Michigan for unlawfully filling wetlands. With the governor’s active support, the Department of Natural Resources revived the state Natural River Act, dormant since 1988, to protect from overdevelopment two more of Michigan’s wildest and most beautiful waterways, the Pine and Upper Manistee in northern Michigan.

Teaming up with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Ms. Granholm authorized state funding to protect 6,000 acres of undeveloped forest, dunes, watershed, and shoreline along northern Lake Michigan in Benzie County. Under her leadership the state DNR opposes, and the DEQ now seriously questions, building an expensive and damaging bridge and highway across the Boardman River near Traverse City.

But, on the other hand, Gov. Granholm last year signed a belligerent, Republican-sponsored bill that, in the name of property rights, allows some homeowners on the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shorelines to bulldoze beaches they don’t even own to clear weeds caused by low water levels. And this past December she supported a stay of a district court ruling that stopped Nestle Waters North America from pumping millions of gallons of spring water in Mecosta County. Nestle had lost a grueling, 19-day circuit court trial in November, and the governor’s intervention, prompted by the company’s threat to layoff 120 workers at its new bottling plant, seemed completely counter to  a 2002 campaign promise. While running, Ms. Granholm said she would “oppose with all the vigor I possess any scheme to market, bottle, trade, or give away Great Lakes water to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

A Less-Than-Special Message
Late last month, apparently hoping to atone for her Nestle action, which caused uproar in Michigan’s environmental and conservation circles, Ms. Granholm released with great fanfare what she called a “comprehensive” plan to protect and improve Michigan’s fresh water resources. But the eight-page document, a special message to the Legislature, turned out instead to be mostly a smattering of pedestrian ideas, incomplete promises, and hazy goals.

The document requested that Republican Attorney General Mike Cox join a federal lawsuit to control exotic species in the Great Lakes. It contained two directives: One prohibiting disposal of polluted sediments in the Great Lakes, the other strengthening protections for isolated wetlands.
The governor’s message also encouraged President Bush to support legislation to aid Great Lakes cleanup work, and urged better supervision of discharges from septic systems, an idea that has knocked around Lansing for years. And she promised to try again to convince lawmakers to reconsider a bill, rejected last year, to charge companies for permits to discharge pollutants into lakes and rivers. Earlier this week, Republican legislators rammed a bill through both houses of the state Legislature that would allow permit fees but dilute the DEQ’s regulatory powers. The governor promptly said she would veto any bill that contained that provision.

The one potentially inspiring idea in the package was the legislation she said she would introduce this month to oversee withdrawals of fresh water from the Great Lakes. But there were no details.

True Grit In Search of Deep Confidence
All of this begs an important question: Why, as governor, has Ms. Granholm produced a water protection plan that seem to be a shriveled version of her original, 2002 proposal, which is close to what she knows is really needed? One possible answer is that despite soaring public opinion numbers — one recent poll put her approval rating at 77 percent — neither she nor her aides are completely confident that they have the clout to truly modernize the state’s water rules.

The governor understands that managing the state’s treasure trove of water hinges on developing an innovative regulatory program — economic incentives, new laws, enforceable rules — that stave off marauders from outside the Great Lakes region yet allow ample supplies of water for state businesses, farmers, recreational industries, and citizens.

The politics of water turn on convincing business executives and farmers — who already are protesting any new regulations as more unneeded bureaucracy — that such rules actually serve their economic interest. How? By making sure that there is enough clean water to go around, and to promote fresh water as a sustainable economic asset that can grow the economy, just like Michigan promotes its clean beaches, skilled workforce, central location, and first-rate universities. 

These can be complicated arguments, but they are also exactly the sorts of expansive economic and social themes that Gov. Granholm showed such a knack for mastering during her first year in office. Her ability to think big, reach out to citizens, and explain complex problems were important reasons for her success. So was her patience in gathering allies in the business community and coaxing bipartisan Legislative support for trend-setting solutions. And she clearly has the grit to stand tough against right-wingers, particularly those in the state House. The proof? Gov. Granholm achieved a series of outstanding political accomplishments last year under extraordinary economic duress.

It’s Water’s Turn for a Victory
The 44-year-old governor closed a $3 billion budget gap without raising taxes. She furloughed 17 new highway projects and used the money for repairing old ones. She appointed an expert land use council that recommended substantive steps to curb sprawl and invest in cities. She signed 17 new land use measures enacted by the Legislature and, in December, launched a new state economic development agency dedicated to putting the council’s recommendations into effect.

But when it comes to safeguarding the state’s water Gov. Granholm has yet to frame the challenges and solutions in the strong, clear terms they merit. Two years ago as a candidate, Ms. Granholm had the words and the principled theme down cold. Michigan must, she said, “defend our most valuable and vulnerable resource, water. As precious to us as blood is to the body, water is our defining resource — and it is our solemn duty to protect our legacy, our endowment, and the character of Michigan by becoming the world’s best water guardians.”

The water bill that Gov. Granholm will introduce in the next few weeks is a chance to make a big statement about how fresh water is, arguably, the central resource around which Michigan can achieve durable prosperity and a superior quality of life. The bill promises to be the newest test of Ms. Granholm’s resolve. It will demonstrate whether the fierce politics of water inspires the strategic savvy and political toughness that made her first year in office so successful.

Keith Schneider is a journalist, editor, and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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