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Making Sure That Water Works

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

May 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

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

The basis for a prosperous society in the Great Lakes will be industrial factories, farms, and thriving communities that use water in ways that celebrate, protect, and restore the natural resource.

But existing laws and regulations governing growth and commerce in Michigan are not designed to promote water resource development and management that simultaneously strengthens the economy and protects the ecology. State environmental agency managers write permits allowing factories to discharge toxic chemicals into rivers, while economic growth officials grant subsidies to private companies that sell pure water from the ground. This is not a winning strategy if the goal is to eliminate pollution and preserve abundant water resources.

As this report indicates, a new way of thinking about water resource development is gradually and organically emerging in the Great Lakes Basin. It reduces costs, safeguards waterways, and strengthens the region’s economic competitiveness. The challenge and 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 Lansing
Elected leaders generally understand and agree on the dimension of the challenges confronting the Great Lakes. Democratic Governor Jennifer 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.

Among other things, both plans call for new standards to manage large water withdrawals; improved sewage management; and reductions in the discharge of toxic chemicals into state waterways. That is all good news, but here is the problem: A report prepared in 1987 by Governor Jim Blanchard’s administration made many similar recommendations. Like the Granholm and Sikkema proposals, it continues to gather dust.

Lawmakers are unwilling to push innovative new policies to address the most pressing issues essentially because traditional business leaders want no part of new laws or rules. Michigan’s 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 in terms of economic and ecological sustainability reveals that today’s investments in heightened stewardship pay financial rewards, and sooner rather than later. Such investments reduce future public and private expenses and, because they encourage innovation while guaranteeing the quality of the resource, actually strengthen future competitiveness.

No More Business as Usual

MLUI/Bruce Giffin
  The abandoned Detroit Boat Club: Eyesore or opportunity?
Water is the key to life. It is also the key to Michigan’s wealth. But the local and global supply, while constantly renewable, is limited. In these simple facts are both potential danger and great opportunity.

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

Michigan 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 was worsening economic, social, and environmental conditions. Today, state policy appears ready to continue feeding that boom-and-bust cycle with the basin’s clean, fresh water, which 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. The proposed Global Enterprise for Water Technology, described in the previous section, could become an incubator for a large number of highly profitable, employment-intensive businesses that help diversify Michigan’s 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, now pumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year from the Muskegon River watershed. What’s more, the company received $10 million in local property and state education tax abatements, job training support, and infrastructure grants.

With the appropriate oversight, the Great Lakes State certainly can support a successful water bottling industry. But as fresh water grows increasingly valuable, the state’s current way of using water to boost new development makes neither economic nor environmental sense.

It’s Time for Sustainable Development

MLUI/Bruce Giffin
  Using the Great Lakes sustainably will protect them for generations to come.
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.

Meanwhile, several ongoing 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, are finishing a basin-wide agreement that aims to set clear standards for water withdrawals, promote efficient water use, and improve the health of the ecosystem’s water resources.
  • Congress is considering a major funding initiative of up to $6 billion that would, among other things, clean up pollution, safeguard drinking water, and restore coastal habitats for fish, wildlife, and people in the basin.

These complex policy initiatives and significant taxpayer investments will fail to achieve much of their full potential, however, 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 Michigan 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. The state must actively encourage citizens, businesses, and governments to embrace practices that increase Michigan’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 Michigan 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 stormwater 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.”

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