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What’s Good for Water is Good for the Economy

With business support, tide turns for water policy

February 5, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Canadian and American leaders are rushing to protect their water resources.

LANSING – What a difference a year makes. This time last year, pessimists and naysayers blocked efforts to sustain the Great Lakes water supply. Now, those who once claimed that water regulations hurt the Great Lakes economy contend that they are essential to promote growth.

Just two months after Great Lakes leaders signed a historic pact to strengthen and unify regional water law, three of the region’s most economically powerful and politically influential states are racing to put the agreement into action. Even Michigan, a longtime opponent of expanding government authority to regulate water users, is poised to pass water legislation this spring and, for the first time, require permits for certain withdrawals.

Historically, Great Lakes policymaking in Michigan stalled because an underlying principle of the debate held that what is good for water resources is bad for business. But now that lawmakers and business leaders have begun to say that what is good for water is good for the economy, observers say that the tide is turning for water policy.

One of the first signs of these new currents is a bipartisan package of bills that, among other things, would encourage farms and factories to pursue modern conservation practices, protect designated trout streams from heavy withdrawals, and require the largest water users to obtain government permission before they begin pumping.

The Michigan Senate passed the legislation in December 2005. More importantly, the Michigan Manufacturers Association endorsed it.

“The Michigan Manufacturers Association supports this historic legislation because it protects both the state’s resources and water-using industries with the state,” said Mike Johnston, director of regulatory affairs for MMA and a longtime opponent of expanding state water use laws. “By regulating large water withdrawals in Michigan it ensures that water is available for future generations. It also safeguards industry and promotes economic growth by recognizing the significant investments made by our existing manufacturing base.”

“Water represents economic growth potential,” Mr. Johnston continued. “If we give other states water, we also give them jobs. We should limit access to Great Lakes water to retain the natural economic value of water in Michigan. If industries want our water, companies must invest their capital here and bring their jobs to Michigan.”

Michigan, Great Lakes Region Move Forward with Water Legislation
Actually passing water legislation would be a big step for Michigan, where past attempts to regulate withdrawals, ban mass diversions, and promote conservation collapsed under the weight of fierce opposition from manufacturers, farmers, and chambers of commerce who vigorously oppose regulatory intrusions into the private sector. Since Nestle Waters began doing business here in 2001, Michigan lawmakers introduced more than 30 legislative proposals to regulate water use, but only two—one setting up a special water council to study the issue and another establishing a conflict resolution program for water users—survived.

“If this legislation is approved,” said Noah Hall, a law professor at Wayne State University, “it will move us past the tired philosophical debate about whether or not the state should regulate water uses. These proposals have a lot of support, so it looks like new regulations and permitting programs to secure the water resource really aren’t the end of the world for business in Michigan after all.”

Michigan isn’t the only state in the region moving forward with new water use legislation. The U.S. governors and Canadian premiers in the Great Lakes signed a historic water pact in December 2005. The agreement essentially bans new diversions from the region, establishes a common standard for state regulators to judge new water projects, and promotes conservation and data gathering.

The current legislation in Michigan represents a small step in the direction of the new regional accord, known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. But neighboring states are brushing aside predictions that the agreement is too complex and controversial to implement and moving much more aggressively to put the plan into action locally.

In his 2006 State of the State address, Governor Bob Taft, a Republican, pledged his home state of Ohio would be the first to enact the agreement. But Gov. Taft has a race on his hands. Lawmakers in Wisconsin are formulating legislation. And Republicans and Democrats already have introduced a bipartisan proposal in Illinois.

“People are really motivated to get this moving,” said Peter Johnson, program director for the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

This progress is particularly striking given that, this time last year, naysayers predicted that it would take a decade to pass the sweeping agreement through eight different state legislatures, two provincial governments, and the U.S. Congress. Today, many people hope for—and expect—a much shorter time frame.

The Struggle for Water Policy Isn’t Over Yet
The struggle to balance the region’s economic and enviromental needs is far from over, however. The water-rich Great Lakes region still remains far from establishing the vision, strategy, and wisdom necessary to achieve an ethic of sustainable water use that grows jobs, strengthens the economy, and enhances, rather than degrades, the resource. Though outdated mindsets are gradually changing, the reflex for many people in Earth’s freshwater oasis is to gripe about water conservation standards rather than to embrace new ideas, translate them into innovative new technologies, export those goods and services to an increasingly thirsty world, and grow the region’s knowledge economy.

Traces of this attitude are evident even in Michigan’s new water legislation, which offers few additional protections beyond Michigan’s existing natural resource law, according to several water experts and environmental lawyers interviewed for this article. The potential win, they said, is largely symbolic.

Environmental advocates are urging lawmakers to strengthen the legislation, which a House subcommittee is expected to approve this week. They argue that legal protections should extend to all of Michigan’s water and water-dependent resources, not just choice trout streams. They contend that lawmakers should stand firm for public trust principles, take on the water diversion issue more directly, and require express legislative approval for projects that send water beyond the boundaries of the Great Lakes Basin.

Environmentalists are also calling for more stringent requirements to promote efficient water use and limit wasteful practices. Such measures, they say, will decrease the risk of environmental degradation. Mounting evidence also suggests that more thoughtful water standards can help reduce business costs. Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Dow Chemical, and other corporations have saved millions of dollars by improving their water use practices and eliminating waste.  

And as more businesses equate water stewardship with economic growth, the tide of political support and influence is turning towards a new ethic of conservation, and a new economy built on knowledge and natural resources.

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes project. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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