2008-05-31 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Washington, Lansing Fail Great Lakes Waters
By George Weeks

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features. George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features. For those concerned about the Great Lakes and waters that feed them, it's a time to be wary of the ways of Washington and Lansing.

In competition on Capitol Hill for return on federal tax dollars, fresh water gets short shrift compared to farm subsidies. In Lansing, it's an uphill struggle to keep an adequate lid on export of Great Lakes water.

There were these developments on those two waterfronts last week:

• Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, testifying Wednesday on behalf of reauthorization of the Great Lakes Legacy Act that has fallen below promised levels of funding, urged Congress to quadruple annual funds to states for cleaning up toxic sediments in waters feeding into the lakes.

The next day, Congress - overriding a President George W. Bush veto for only the second time - enacted a bloated $290 billion farm bill that gives generous new subsidies to farmers.

The action underscored who has election-year clout in Congress, which has only appropriated $126.5 million of the $270 million that it had authorized for clean-up of contaminated Great Lakes areas that, as Cherry testified, "include communities and the rivers that run through them that helped win our nation's wars and fueled our economic prosperity in the 20th century."

Cherry, who had a strong environmental record while a state senator, is now being thrust into increasing public face-time during term-limited Governor Jennifer Granholm's second term, in advance of Cherry's likely 2010 gubernatorial bid.

• In Lansing, there's debate about whether Michigan can say "no" to large water withdrawals, including by those who export huge amounts in small containers.

Yes, we can say no, insists Michigan Director Cyndi Roper of East Lansing-based Clean Water Action, who is among those whose voices under the dome are politically faint, compared to well-funded interests pushing for commercialization and privatization of our water.

At issue: the state Senate passed legislation related to the Great Lakes Compact that is weaker on withdrawal of groundwater for bottling than action by the House. Said Roper in a Detroit Free Press commentary:

"The Senate legislation requires only those pumping more than 2,000,000 gallons per day to ask permission on that water use. Compare this to Minnesota's permission trigger, which is 10,000 gallons per day, or Wisconsin's, at a million gallons. Both states have created a system to allow public input and oversight at levels up to 200 times more protective than the Michigan Senate approved. Michigan's senators thumbed their noses at the public's rights to have a meaningful voice in decisions about massive water withdrawals."

Late last week, with further legislation pending in the House, Roper sent e-mail missives to environmentalists urging them to "inundate lawmaker offices demanding they fight for our water and stand up to the corporate interests wishing to seize control of our water."

Traverse City attorney Jim Olson, advocate of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation's (MCWC) long legal fight against Nestle's bottling operation in Mecosta County, called the Senate action "the great give-away of Michigan's water, 25% of it! Other countries, private investors, will be thirsting to get their taps into Michigan. It'll be like the Oklahoma Gold Rush, only this time it's the Michigan Water Rush."

Olson says MCWC and others are "holding fast to the principle that water in Michigan, because it is the source of all streams, lakes, and most of inflow into the Great Lakes, is subject to a public trust. This means the state owns the water and must protect and manage it for citizens, not privatize or hand over control to private interests for profit as the primary purpose of a water project."

Water - a public trust, not a product. A quaint, but correct, notion.

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