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Legacy or Letdown?

Granholm’s disjointed water plan disappoints allies, pleases opponents

January 23, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Keith Burnham/LelandReport.com
  The narrows that connects two lakes in Leelanau County illustrates Gov. Granholm's claim that “Michigan’s astounding natural resources and quality of life are pivotal factors in attracting jobs to our state.”

LANSING -- Acting on what she called "a sense of urgency to protect a key element of Michigan's legacy," Governor Jennifer M. Granholm delivered an eight-page memorandum to the Legislature this week that called for bipartisan and "swift action" to strengthen safeguards for Michigan's fresh waters. 

The Democratic governor’s proposal calls for seven specific kinds of actions -- legislation, executive orders, directives, requests, and promises of advocacy -- that the administration asserts will dramatically improve state oversight of Michigan’s most important natural resource. The centerpiece of the governor’s package, which she heavily promoted and described as “comprehensive,” is a new law to manage withdrawals of fresh water from the Great Lakes that she promised to deliver to the Legislature “before the end of next month.”

P.R. Success Produces Ironic Response
As a display of Ms. Granholm’s ability to command attention, the roll out of the governor’s initiative to protect Michigan’s water was an unqualified success. Newspapers, radio stations, and television newsrooms afforded the proposal prominent front page display, ample broadcast time, and respectful editorials.

But as the opening of a political strategy to galvanize citizens, sway powerful industrial interests, and convince Republicans in the Legislature to seriously consider and approve new laws to regulate Michigan’s waters, Ms. Granholm’s unusually high profile announcement produced an ironic outcome.

Leaders of the opposition party emerged as her principal cheerleaders. Hours after the governor publicly unveiled her strategy, for example, Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a Republican from Grandville, issued this statement praising the initiative. “It is an important commitment to fully protect the Great Lakes and our state’s inland waterways,” Sen. Sikkema said. “I agree with the governor that the work we do to conserve these resources will provide a lasting legacy.”

“I am appreciative of the governor’s support in protecting one of Michigan’s greatest natural resources,” said Senator Patty Birkholz, Republican of Saugatuck. She added. “I look forward to hearing the details of this plan so we can continue to protect our waters.”

But many of Ms. Granholm's allies in the state's environmental community, who saw her proposal as piecemeal and lacking coherence, greeted it with skepticism. “We’re glad to see the governor assert her leadership on this important issue,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan director of Clean Water Action, an influential water policy group. “But her proposal doesn’t have the bold vision needed to link new economic growth strategies with protecting our waterways.”

“We certainly have problems that need to be addressed today,” Ms. Roper added. “But we must also look more to the future in our policy proposals and confront the real challenges to our water quality and quantity.”

“It’s a good first step,” said Bill Bobier, a policy advisor for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the largest state-based conservation organization in the nation, and a moderate former Republican state representative from Oceana County. “But it isn’t anything real bold. It’s by no means the kind of comprehensive water action that needs to happen in the brave new world of sitting on top of the world’s most precious natural resource.”

Strongest Statement on Water In Two Years
The governor’s memorandum to the Legislature was the first significant statement Ms. Granholm has made on water policy since February 2002, when as a candidate speaking in Grand Rapids she outlined a more cohesive and aggressive 10-point Clean Water Forever Initiative. She pledged to inspire an “ethos of conservation,” “lead a state attack on the worst chemicals plaguing the Great Lakes,” and “oppose with all the vigor I possess any scheme to market, bottle, trade, or give away Great Lakes water to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

In interviews this week, several senior executives in the administration and opinion leaders in Lansing noted that as governor Ms. Granholm has embraced a more cautious approach. They said the conservative state Legislature, particularly the House, and influential industrial groups are reluctant to accept new government regulations for any business activity. The message from business groups is that the state is doing an adequate job of keeping Michigan’s abundant fresh water clean and accessible, and new oversight is superfluous. New regulations could discourage businesses from settling in Michigan, they argue.

“We have real concerns about this,” Doug Roberts Jr., the director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told Gongwer News Service. “We don’t think more permits is good for business and it does not square with what the governor has said about promoting manufacturing.”

Seven-Step Approach
In the memorandum she issued on Tuesday, January 20, Gov. Granholm pledged to take specific actions to protect and improve Great Lakes waterways. The governor said she would: 

  • Ask Republican Attorney General Mike Cox to join a federal lawsuit against the Federal Environmental Protection Agency aimed at controlling exotic species in the Great Lakes.
  • Sign two executive directives. One prohibitis disposing polluted sediments in the open waters of the Great Lakes. The other asks the state Department of Environmental Quality to strengthen protections for critical isolated wetlands on state land.
  • Urge the Michigan Legislature to reconsider legislation, rejected last year, to charge companies for environmental permits to discharge pollutants to lakes, rivers, and groundwater sources.
  • Establish a statewide sanitary code to oversee discharges from septic systems.
  • Encourage President George W. Bush to personally support federal legislation that would allocate billions of dollars to aid Great Lakes cleanup and restoration.

The keystone of the initiative is the Michigan Water Legacy Act, which Ms. Granholm billed as a “comprehensive water withdrawal statute.” The proposal, she said, seeks to regulate new or expanded water projects that withdraw two million gallons per day or 100 million gallons per year. One aspect of the proposed legislation would initially bring Michigan into compliance with an American-Canadian agreement signed nearly two decades ago.

A Water Legacy?
“In 1985, Michigan signed the Great Lakes Charter,” Gov. Granholm wrote. “In that charter, Michigan agreed to manage withdrawals of water over two million gallons per day. Almost 20 years later it is an embarrassment that we are the only state that hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain. This legislation proposes that Michigan live up to the promises made.”

Water withdrawal has been an especially sensitive issue for Ms. Granholm since December, when her administration was sharply criticized by a citizens group and prominent environmental organizations for unexpectedly backing Nestle Waters North America’s authority to continue pumping millions of gallons of spring water in central Michigan. The administration's intervention helped convince a state appellate panel to stay a circuit court judge's order to cease pumping because it violated three state environmental laws and threatened the property rights of adjacent landowners. The company’s request for a retrial is pending while it continues to pump a monthly average of 250 gallons per minute from a spring that feeds the Muskegon River and ultimately Lake Michigan. Nestle also is actively pursuing additional spring water sources around the state.

Prominent Attorney’s Critique
James Olson, the attorney for Michigan Citizens For Water Conservation, the citizens group that won the legal case against Nestle Waters, said in an interview that Gov. Granholm’s description of her soon-to-be-released Water Legacy Act would have virtually no consequence for companies like Nestle that withdraw huge amounts of fresh water for sale out of state. Mr. Olson has proposed five steps to strengthen the administration’s legislation. The most important provision, said Mr. Olson, is one that formally establishes a “common law sovereign interest in the water as a public resource and declares it held in trust on behalf of its people and the State’s future security.”

“She’s been a step behind from day one,” said Mr. Olson. “Water was one of the platforms she ran on and this is her first important announcement about policy. But where is the policy? What’s just as important as what she did say is what’s not said here. Will she put teeth to her words so we can tell if this proposal will be a true legacy, as she wants, or an act of abdication?” 

Senior leaders in the DEQ said that when the legislation becomes public next month it will have teeth, including provisions that will gradually reduce the regulatory threshold and by 2010 require companies that pump more than 100,000 gallons per day to gain permits from the state.

Ms. Granholm appeared to express her resolve to pass a rigorous statute in the memorandum. “Other states, including Great Lakes states, have growing populations served by increasingly depleted aquifers,” Gov. Granholm said. “If we do not take action to regulate withdrawals of water from the Great Lakes basin, those who are already eyeing our treasured lakes as the solution to their water shortages will begin arriving with their pumps and hoses to take their bounty.”

“Our waters are more threatened today than perhaps they have ever been,” Gov. Granholm added. “A thirsty country looks to our resources and sees a source of free, clean, fresh drinking water. Pollution and growth continue to threaten their health. Our critical job providers cry out for water to bottle their products, to cool their furnaces, and to clean their new cars and trucks.

“In the last 10 years, global economic forces have changed our world dramatically,” she continued. “In order to survive, we must compete for business. Yet, in the 21st century the old paradigm of business versus the environment is no longer valid. Together, Michigan’s astounding natural resources and quality of life are pivotal factors in attracting jobs to our state.”

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Water Security Project and manages the Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.    

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