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A Small Crack in the Dam?

Some farmers, business organizations soften resistance to water regulations

July 22, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Michigan has few regulations regarding large-scale water withdrawals. Nestlé Waters, which bottles water around the world, including at this plant in Vittel, France, is suing the state over a ban on exporting bottled water from the Great Lakes Basin.

SAUGATUCK – With the world’s largest water bottling company asking a federal court to squash the mouse of a law that Michigan relies on to prevent the siphoning of the Great Lakes, the primary opponents of stronger water regulations may be softening their resistance.

At a special public hearing held here by the state Senate’s Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee on July 14, some farmers wary of the state regulating their irrigation practices called for economic incentives that would help them and other industrial-scale water users install modern, water-conserving technologies. And, for the first time, one prominent business advocate strongly opposed to new state water use regulations indicated a willingness to move forward gradually with new rules.

Bruce Scheerer, a vegetable farmer in Ottawa County, expressed a sentiment echoed by other growers at the hearing.

“There are technologies available to reduce water demand and promote more efficient use,” Mr. Scheerer told the Senate committee. “But they’re generally expensive to install. So we would benefit from incentives to encourage the use of new equipment.”

And Doug Roberts, Jr., director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, seemed to signal a new willingness to consider at least some regulation of industrial-scale water use.

“We stand ready to support a scientifically based water use statute that protects unique areas,” Mr. Roberts said. “We need a statute that protects our nationally rare water bodies such as rich fens and coldwater trout streams. We are prepared to discuss a full range of efforts to protect these resources, including potentially permits, environmental studies, and maybe even areas that are off limits to high capacity wells.”

Both statements indicate something of a breakthrough in the popular push to spur government action that safeguards Michigan’s water supply from local overuse and diversion abroad. Farm and business associations such as the Michigan Farm Bureau, the state chamber, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, and the Michigan Concrete Paving Association have spent the past several years fighting updates to the state’s largely non-existent water supply laws. They claim that new regulations will cost too much, chill future investment, and hamper job creation.

But by broadly outlining a potential strategy to safeguard water quantity, the farmers and Mr. Roberts increased the chances for breaking the stalemate on modern water withdrawal legislation in Michigan. Their comments acknowledge that a robust water supply is crucial to the health and competitiveness of the state economy. The comments also indicate that the groups do see at least some steps Michigan can take to encourage conservation measures, which experts say would help to sustain the Great Lakes and the economy that depends on them.

Wanted: A First Line of Defense
After witnessing such a change in tone, lawmakers are considering exactly what they should do next.

“Can we do more? Should we do more? The answer is ‘yes,’” said Senator Patty Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck Township who chairs the Senate committee. “But we want more information about what those next steps should be. We want to be proactive, and stay ahead of any future water and land use problems. But we also want to allow for wise and reasonable resource use and development.”

Senator Birkholz’s call for water policy recommendations comes as a plan proposed by Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, marks its sixteenth month languishing in the state Senate. Her call also comes less than a month after Nestlé Waters N.A., the bull of the bottled water industry, filed suit against the State of Michigan. Nestlé is challenging an order issued by the state Department of Environmental Quality that restricts to within the Great Lakes Basin the company’s sale of water pumped from a well owned by the City of Evart. The company claims the special conditions placed on their activities violate commerce protections within the U.S. Constitution.

More specifically, the lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of the Water Resources Development Act, a federal law that empowers the region’s governors to veto diversions of Great Lakes water outside the basin. WRDA is the only statute Michigan has to block mass water exports to other states and nations. Several legal experts suggest that Nestlé’s challenge to the law stands on firm legal ground.

“Nestlé has challenged the federal law that gives the governor the right to veto an out-of-basin diversion,” James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, reminded the Senate committee. “Nestlé is trying to remove that power to stop diversions from our governor.”

WRDA was not meant to provide the first line of defense against Great Lakes diversions, according to water policy experts. The law was amended in 2000 and specifically directed Great Lakes states to establish clear standards to judge large withdrawals based on the principles of conservation and resource improvement. To meet this charge, the Council of Great Lakes Governors recently released the final draft version of a plan known as the Charter Annex 2001 for a 60-day public review. Hearings are scheduled in Michigan for that proposal in August. But any real policy changes could be a decade way.

Same Challenge, New Enthusiasm
The challenge of adopting modern water use standards in the Great Lakes State was plain to see in the Saugatuck hearing, the first of several being held around the state. Several speakers warned that the problems with more stringent water withdrawal requirements range from a lack of scientific information, to the possibility of driving up business costs, to even making it more difficult for local communities to fight fires. But some committee members were skeptical of at least some of those claims.

“Where’s your proof?” Senator Liz Brater, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, asked one dissenter. “We will be taking up legislation in the fall. And before we use scare tactics we ought to provide some real data back them up.”

Senator Brater urged participants to drop their unsubstantiated rhetoric and instead participate in a more productive discussion. There is a growing political consensus that Michigan must update its water policy. But significant questions still linger.  Resource experts who attended the meeting said lawmakers would benefit from more direction on how best to determine what size withdrawal should trigger a permitting process and how to treat different water users, such as farmers, water bottlers, and manufacturers.

The MEC’s Mr. Clift recommended that Michigan adopt a detailed water conservation plan.

“We should be enacting common-sense conservation measures where, sector by sector, we are preparing generally accepted practices and making sure everybody abides by them,” he told the committee. “It’s in our best interest to conserve, make our own use more efficient, and demonstrate to [those who may seek access to the water] that we’re being a good steward of this resource.”

That idea attracted enthusiastic support from members of the farm and business community.

“Legislation with more fees for water users could make water resource protection more prohibitive,” said Jim Jeltema, owner of Clearbrook Golf Course in Saugatuck. “What we would rather see is incentives that encourage golf course owners, and all users of water, toward conservation and utilizing new technologies that make sense.”

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about sustaining the Great Lakes in the global economy, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and reports on Smart Growth from the Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org. Download Andy’s recent in-depth special report, Water Works: Growing Michigan’s Great Lakes Opportunities, at the Institute’s Web site, www.mlui.org.

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