When Ice Mountain Spring Water Co. announced that its western
Michigan plant would begin bottling water withdrawn from the Great
Lakes, a bevy of environmentalists as well as local Native American
tribes objected to what they felt was exploitation of a natural
treasure.

Two years later, after judges threw the case out, companies like
the bottled-water giant and its employees may face problems because
of a series of proposals that tighten scrutiny on water extractions
from the Great Lakes, as well as regulations on groundwater
withdrawal from the area.

The most recent of these proposals is a bill the Michigan House
of Representatives passed two weeks ago, which would add an
amendment to the state Constitution banning new water withdrawals
from the Great Lakes around Michigan. But the proposal is drawing
sharp criticism from opponents as well as experts; even supporters
call for a few modifications.

And even as the proposal makes its way through the state
Legislature, two other pieces of policy wait in the wings.

The Water Legacy Act, a package of bills being moved through the
Legislature by two Ann Arbor lawmakers, would go beyond the
proposed amendment by implementing more detailed standards for
water withdrawal from just Michigan’s lake water or
groundwater.

In addition, a highly criticized 1986 charter — signed by
eight U.S. governors and two Canadian premiers — will most
likely receive an overhaul next week. The changes to the charter
would apply a uniform set of standards for water withdrawals over
all eight Great Lakes states and the two Canadian provinces that
signed the original agreement almost 20 years ago.

With these revisions pending and research surrounding the
effectiveness of the Legacy Act moving along, the proposed
amendment to the state constitution seems unnecessary, according to
many state officials.

Already the target of much criticism in and outside the
Legislature, the proposal risks not making it out of the Senate at
all.

The proposed amendment

Michigan is the only signing party to the 1986 charter that has
not passed its own state-level legislation to formally enact it.
The proposed amendment, which is a paragraph long, is seen by some
lawmakers as largely ineffective in the protection of state water
resources. For this reason, it has met with disapproval from
officials.

The amendment must pass in the Senate and then gain the approval
of state voters in a 2006 election in order to take effect.

State Rep. Alexander Lipsey (D-Kalamazoo), who voted against the
proposed amendment, said the bill most likely will not pass in the
Senate and that it is not enforceable because it lacks any detail
or attempt to standardize water management throughout the Great
Lakes.

He added that the amendment was introduced for political
reasons, in an attempt to reflect well on members of the House
while research continues on the Legacy Act.

“The timing of this clearly will have a maximum impact
before the November elections,” Lipsey said. “We
can’t help but think that it was designed to make people
think (the House) is doing something about (the Great Lakes
problem).”

Just 10 representatives voted against the proposed amendment.
Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor) supported the measure, but told the
Associated Press after it was passed that this move did not go far
enough in protecting the Great Lakes and that he would be proposing
changes.

Like Lipsey, SNRE Prof. Jon Bulkley questioned the benefit of
passing legislation to enforce an agreement that is nearly two
decades old. Bulkley pointed to the fact that reform on Great Lakes
water diversions is needed, but a uniform set of standards must be
adopted between the eight states and Canada on water
management.

He added that the bill passed by the House would not stop the
other states from diverting large amounts of water based on their
own standards and would only pay lip service to the charter agreed
upon in 1986.

“The legislation passed in the House is strictly for
show,” Bulkley said. “In my view it doesn’t
extend to anyone beyond the shoreline of Michigan. I really
don’t understand why anyone would seriously consider that as
a useful piece of legislations. There’s other ways of setting
up reporting procedures.”

Clogged up alternatives

An alternative to the proposed House amendment, the Water Legacy
Act — a package of bills proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm
and ushered into Legislature piecemeal by Kolb and Sen. Liz Brater
(D-Ann Arbor) — offers a more detailed plan to monitor the
use of Michigan’s groundwater and withdrawals from the
Lakes.

Lipsey said the House has chosen to largely ignore the act and
that representatives should have focused on it instead of passing
the useless bill.

The Legacy Act has stalled in the state Legislature in large
part because many members of the House say they will wait for the
results of research that is currently in work before supporting
it.

The research, which the state funds, will produce findings on
the availability of groundwater in the state. The committee
conducting the research could not be reached for comment, but most
representatives said the results will be made public within one to
two years.

Some sources have expressed concern that two years is too long
to wait to begin hearings on the Water Legacy Act, while others
said it would be inappropriate to go further without seeing the
results of the research.

“The Water Legacy Act is premature. Why regulate before
seeing the findings?” said Mike Johnston, director of
regulatory affairs for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
“The state is spending about $1.5 million on a ground water
advisory committee to help determine the availability of ground
water in the state.”

Johnston, who opposes the Water Legacy Act, represents a number
of opponents to restrictions on withdrawals from the ground and
surface water in Michigan’s Great Lakes basins. He said
creating strict regulations on water diversions inside Michigan
would be a blow to the state’s economy.

“It’s more expensive now than ever to do business in
Michigan. So if you’re going to add on regulations …
it’s going to cause less job growth,” he said.

Like the bill in the House, the Water Legacy Act would only be
pertinent to the state and doesn’t seek to update the 1986
proposal, in which each of the Great Lakes governors holds veto
power on any other region’s plans for diversions.

Measuring the costs and benefits

But those who defend the Water Legacy Act said it would be
effective because it complements suggested revisions to the 1986
charter.

The revisions, which would apply a common standard for water
management among the Great Lakes regions, are organized under the
title of Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements.

The 2001 charter has been endorsed, for the most part, by
environmental groups, but still receives strong criticism.

Among these critics is state Attorney General Mike Cox, who
released a statement after the charter was announced three months
ago, saying that it would actually weaken Michigan’s control
over withdrawals.

Those who side with Cox have said the charter wrongly allows
three states to veto any other state’s Great Lakes withdrawal
plan. Johnston said this would harm the state because Michigan, as
the only state completely surrounded by the Lakes, depends on that
water more than any of the other states that are part of the
agreement.

“Michigan will pay a disproportionate share because we
only use Great Lakes water. That puts us at a competitive
disadvantage,” Johnston said. “Our competitor states
have an economic interest in saying ‘no’ to our water
proposals.”

For example, if Michigan is interested in building a new power
plant within the next few years, under the Annex, three states
could vote to stop construction and prevent the growth of jobs and
manufacturing in the state, Johnston said.

He added that losses in Michigan manufacturing could benefit
manufacturing in other states.

However, Peter Weisc, a consultant to the governors on the
Annex, said the criteria the 2001 charter lays out would limit
politically motivated vetoes on withdrawals.

“Instead of stopping diversions based on, ‘I
don’t politically want this withdrawal,’ it’ll be
based on the (negative environmental impacts) that the withdrawal
would have on the Great Lakes,” Weisc said.

At hearings held over the summer and fall to gauge public
opinion of the Annex, industrial and agricultural groups complained
that the withdrawals would lead to a “jobs diversion”
in Michigan by making it more costly for companies to use water
from the Great Lakes.

“Industrial groups say it’ll be a new permit and
it’ll be costly. That’s the industrial side …
always concerned that there will be a cost involved,” Weisc
said. “If we get our act together (and enact regulations)
it’ll be a good thing for both the industry and the
economy.”

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