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Making Sure That Water Works

State must see water conservation as a vast opportunity, not a regulatory burden

December 26, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin

Scott Fountain, in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, celebrates the abundance of the Great Lakes.

The basis for prosperity in the Great Lakes Basin will be factories, farms, and communities that use water in ways that celebrate, protect, and rehabilitate the natural resource.

Two new water agreements recently signed by Great Lakes leaders represent a major step toward this promising vision. The next, and perhaps bigger, challenge as these regional accords are implemented is to overhaul the current laws governing growth, commerce, and water management at the state level. That is because existing local policies are such a long ways away from promoting water resource development and management that simultaneously strengthens the economy and protects the lakes’ ecology.

In Michigan, for example, state environmental agency managers write permits allowing factories to discharge toxic chemicals into rivers. And economic growth officials grant subsidies to private companies that sell water from the ground. In a world where clean, fresh water is an increasingly scarce resource, these are not winning strategies if the goal is to eliminate pollution and preserve abundant supplies.

Meanwhile, a new, much more proactive way of thinking about water resource development is gradually and organically emerging across the Great Lakes Basin. It reduces costs, safeguards waterways, and strengthens the region’s economic competitiveness. The responsibility for the region’s civic leaders is to understand this movement and establish an atmosphere in which it can flourish.

“The region continues to lack a detailed vision for a sustainable future,” said George Kuper, president of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries. “A sustainable development plan for the Great Lakes region would ensure that our economic, social, and natural resources are available for future generations without compromising current needs.”

Unlocking Lawmakers
Elected leaders generally understand and agree on the dimension of the challenges confronting the Great Lakes. In Michigan, Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Clean Water Forever agenda, first introduced on the campaign trail in 2002, looks remarkably like the action agenda prepared in 2001 by the Great Lakes Conservation Task Force, which was chaired by Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a Republican.

Both plans call for, among other things, new standards to manage large water withdrawals, improved sewage management, and reductions in the discharge of toxic chemicals into state waterways. That is the good news. But here is the problem: A report prepared in 1987 by Governor Jim Blanchard’s administration made many similar recommendations.

Policymakers remain reluctant to advance innovative new policies to permanently address the most pressing issues essentially because, by and large, traditional business leaders want no part of new laws or rules. In Michigan, top business associations repeatedly portray proposals to develop standards for conserving water quality and quantity as expensive intrusions into the private sector that will saddle companies with rising costs and sap the region’s economic competitiveness.

Granted, responsible regulations to protect public health and the environment can add to a company’s short-term expense. But viewing new water protections through the twin lenses of economic and ecological sustainability reveals that investing in excellent stewardship today pays rich rewards tomorrow.

Companies like Ford Motor, Dow Chemical, and others are saving water and money with aggressive sustainable water use strategies, while other high-tech start-ups like Falcon WaterFree Technologies continue to expand the region’s knowledge economy by pushing the boundaries of research and development in water-friendly technologies.

No More Business as Usual
Water is the key to life. It is also the key to wealth in the Great Lakes Basin. But the local and global supply, while constantly renewable, has limits. In these simple facts are both potential danger and great opportunity.

The ready availability of clean, fresh water gives the region an incredible advantage in the increasingly fierce interstate and international competition that defines our era. The Great Lakes are an asset that must be promoted to attract talented workers, grow existing industry and new jobs, and build prosperity in the unforgiving global economy. But at the same time, the region faces a historic challenge: Using its water legacy while protecting it.

Michigan is a case in point. The state tends to have a locust-like mentality about its natural resources. When white pine timber became popular, for example, state policy allowed lumberjacks to completely flatten the state’s ubiquitous forests. While momentarily profitable, history reveals the long-term result of that shortsighted approach is worsening economic, social, and environmental conditions.

Today, state policy appears ready to continue feeding that boom-and-bust cycle with clean, fresh water, which today is still thought of as immense and inexhaustible—precisely what lumber companies said about Michigan’s forests a century ago while busily cutting them all down.

With this in mind, consider Michigan’s very different responses to two water-related businesses that sought to locate in the state at the turn of the 21st century. A project long proposed for the Grand Rapids region, for example—the Global Enterprise for Water Technology project—could be an incubator for a large number of highly profitable, employment-intensive businesses that help Michigan diversify its economy and protect the basin’s and the world’s freshwater supplies. But, in more than four years of trying, the project’s supporters have yet to obtain either public or private financing. Most recently, in 2004, Michigan Economic Development Corporation officials turned down a $3.5 million grant request from the Enterprise.

Nestle Waters, N.A., on the other hand, received a radically different, much more generous response. The company came to Michigan in 2000 in search of a secure source of spring water for a new plant to bottle and distribute its popular Ice Mountain brand. Nestle was awarded free access to a source in Mecosta County and, despite a judicial finding that the operation negatively affects nearby streams and wetlands, is still pumping from the Muskegon River watershed. What’s more, the company received $10 million in local property and state education tax abatements, job training, and infrastructure grants.

With the appropriate oversight, Michigan and other water-rich Great Lakes states certainly can support a successful water bottling industry. But the only oversight the state currently has comes in the form of expensive, highly contentious court cases: Nestle continues to challenge the state’s laws, or lack of them, in both state and federal court. In short, Michigan’s current water use strategy, and the legal and policy regime behind it, make little economic or environmental sense.

It’s Time for Sustainable Development
The overarching problem is that state policy tends to favor traditional economic development projects with little regard for their effect on water resources, while at the same time essentially ignoring more innovative business proposals and practices that aim to improve water stewardship.

The state’s outdated water policy also allows ongoing pollution, waste, and other activities that steadily degrade rivers, lakes, and wetlands that will only become more important in the future. This approach stifles innovation, increases taxpayer costs, degrades natural resources and scenic features, and ultimately diminishes the region’s primary competitive edge.

Several ongoing, top-level national and international efforts provide policymakers with an immediate opportunity to move forward with a new governing strategy to secure the Great Lakes. The most noteworthy among them:

  • The United States and Canada, led by the two countries' top environmental agencies, are jointly reviewing the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which the two nations signed to improve pollution controls and water quality. Officials are assessing the effectiveness of the agreement and proposing changes. A 1978 revision, for example, called for the virtual elimination of toxic substance discharges into the Great Lakes.
  • The Great Lakes states and provinces, led by the Council of Great Lakes Governors, recently signed a basin-wide agreement that sets some standards for water withdrawals, promotes efficient use, and improves data gathering. But the new agreement has several very large loopholes. And the next step is ratifying the agreements principles in eight different state legislatures, a challenge that many observers suggest is near impossible.
  • Great Lakes leaders also signed a major initiative calling for $20 billion to, among other things, clean up pollution, safeguard drinking water, and restore coastal habitats for fish, wildlife, and people in the basin. But, after launching the federal task force that came up with that initiative a year ago, the Bush administration now says the country cannot afford it.

These complex policy initiatives promise a better future for the Great Lakes and the people that depend on them. But they will fail to achieve much of their full potential until state and local governments begin looking at their development practices through the three-dimensional lens of economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

The challenge for the region is to first establish a compelling vision for what a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem means for long-term prosperity.

The next step is to shape an integrated economic and environmental policy that inspires change in many traditional behaviors. Great Lakes leaders must actively encourage citizens, businesses, and governments to embrace practices that increase the region’s prosperity by protecting, restoring, and permanently sustaining the Great Lakes ecosystem. That will begin to reframe the water policy debate and shift the emphasis away from what the region stands to lose with new regulations toward what it will gain — now and in the future.

Or, as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley put it: “When we let storm water run into the ground rather than the sewers, we save money on sewer repairs and cut down flooding. When we adopt road-building techniques that keep salt, soil, and gasoline from flowing into our rivers and lakes, we keep our beaches cleaner and save money on water treatment. When we help businesses improve their manufacturing process to reduce water use they save money, which keeps them competitive and strengthens the overall economy.”

“At the same time,” Mayor Daley added, “we enhance our quality of life, which builds pride in our communities and helps us attract new employers, residents, and tourists, all ingredients of a strong local economy.”

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes project. This is a revised excerpt from Water Works: Growing Michigan’s Great Lakes Opportunities, published by the Institute in May 2005. Click here to read, download, or order the entire report.

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