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No Time for Treading Water

Legislature shows a little more interest in regulating withdrawals

October 28, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


If Michigan installs policies that protect its vast water supply in a sustainable fashion, the state will gain a permanent economic advantage.

How about this for a budget band-aid? The people of Michigan could generate more than $3 billion in new revenue annually by assessing a one-penny tap fee for every gallon of water withdrawn from, but not returned to, the Great Lakes Basin. And that is just the beginning of what the Great Lakes State could achieve with a smarter, more modern water policy.

Such a policy could help Michigan’s crumbling manufacturing sector enhance profitability and global competitiveness. The state could attract and grow high-tech businesses to speed the transformation of its languishing economy and build the foundation for 21st-century prosperity. And it could also secure for our children the planet’s largest system of fresh water amidst rising pollution, climate change, and over-consumption.

What’s needed to accomplish these absolutely essential goals is a water use strategy based on the proven concept of sustainability. Sustainability is any form of development that can continue indefinitely, simultaneously boosting profits, promoting social equality, and enhancing—rather than steadily degrading—valuable natural resources like fresh water.

Enlightened political leaders like Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and Republican Congressman Vern Ehlers of Grand Rapids strive to move such a strategy forward in Michigan. But, until the past few weeks, the state Legislature has mostly ignored the issue, including Governor Granholm’s Water Legacy Act, which was introduced more than 18 months ago but continues to languish without a committee hearing.

Tired of Waiting
In May of this year, perhaps frustrated by the slow pace, the governor and Steve Chester, the head of the state Department of Environmental Quality, made three groundbreaking announcements.

First, they said that the state would write a new set of rules based on the 33-year-old state Inland Lakes and Streams Act. The new rules will begin regulating, for the first time in state history, groundwater withdrawals that threaten to drain interconnected surface water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Then, the governor and the director began tapping the brakes on the state’s rapidly expanding bottled water business. They said the administration would allow the bull of the water-bottling industry, Nestle Waters, to move forward with plans to purchase and bottle tens of millions of gallons of municipal water from the City of Evart, a deal that could lead to additional jobs and investment in an economically depressed area of the state.

And, finally, Ms. Granholm and Mr. Chester took the unprecedented step of restricting sale of the company’s bottled water to within the Great Lakes Basin and issued a moratorium on any other, new bottling facilities that do not agree to those same, brand-new limits.

As the governor—Michigan’s former attorney general—no doubt expected, Nestle Water immediately filed suit against the state and its novel “no export” rules. The international company could well be on firm legal ground; many legal experts agree with the company’s contention that the order unfairly discriminates against a single industry and violates basic commerce laws.

But Ms. Granholm’s actions also had more important political intent. The moratorium on new water bottling projects is one way of forcing the water issue onto state lawmakers’ agendas and puts them on notice that Michigan needs modern standards to guide future water withdrawal projects responsibly. These are protections the state lacks and sorely needs.

The governor’s strategy seems to be working. Earlier this week, different state lawmakers introduced 11 more water-related legislative proposals; variously, they are designed to strengthen protections for unique resources like cold-water trout streams, expand and streamline reporting requirements for heavy water users, and spur conservation. It brings to 27 the total number of new water bills introduced since Nestle began searching for an opportunity to build a bottling plant in Michigan in 2001. Lawmakers have acted on only three of them.

State Senator Patty Birkholz, the Republican from Saugatuck who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, pledged to deliver a new law to the governor’s desk by the end of the year. That’s just two months away, and raises fears that, after so much delay and so little attention to the issue, new bills may be rushed through both chambers without adequate discussion.

A Spreading Realization
One relatively new development that may help the governor and the congressman move their water-sustainability agendas forward is the spreading realization among some major homegrown companies that boosting water stewardship can be good business for Michigan. Ford Motor, Dow Chemical, Herman Miller, and General Motors, for example, are discovering that aggressive conservation of water quality and quantity saves them money, enhances their corporate image, and adds dollars to the bottom line.

And entrepreneurs like Grand Rapids-based Falcon WaterFree Technologies, which sells urinals that use absolutely no water, are demonstrating that developing new, water-conserving technologies builds new economic opportunities right here in our state. Falcon exports its porcelain potties worldwide, inspiring Congressman Ehlers to push for a $2 million federal earmark to study how the innovation can save water and cut expenses aboard naval ships and at military bases.  

The basis for a prosperous society in the Great Lakes Basin is factories, farms, and communities that use water in ways that protect and improve the natural resource. Literally paying companies to sell its water, as Michigan did when it granted Nestle $10 million in tax abatements five years ago to building a pumping and bottling plant in Mecosta County, makes no sense in a world steadily spoiling its supply of clean fresh water.

Sustainable use of fresh water needs to be as big a part of Michigan’s economic development strategy as sun is to Florida, silicon is to California, and snow is to Colorado. Until we get to that point, the state’s economy will, at best, tread water or, more likely, continue to sink slowly.

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org. A version of this article was published in The Detroit News on July 3, 2005.

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