Great Lakes Compact: Loose Ends Not Bottled Up?

As recently reported by AlterNet, there are a few analysts who charge that the Great Lakes compact, as written, will actually facilitate the commercial export of Great Lakes water:

“…For 25 years, residents around the Great Lakes have worried that thirstier regions (or even countries) would make designs on their water. The lakes’ bounty as the single largest freshwater source in the world (holding 18 percent of the Earth’s available surface freshwater) has inspired the eight surrounding states to try to formulate a legal shield ensuring their water stays in their own backyards.

Now, a quarter-century of fitful but fruitful work to come up with a common, enforceable agreement that would ban the export of Great Lakes water in (among other things) pipelines and railroad cars is just one house of Congress away from final federal consent. The long regional nightmare of Great Lakes drained to green golf courses in Arizona is almost over. Business, government and environmental advocates are singing the praises of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

…What’s all the fuss about? It depends in part on whether any given reviewer of the compact thinks it opens the sluices of the Great Lakes for commercial capture and sale, or is a pragmatic recognition of the reality of an already thriving bottled water industry that dramatically advances sustainable water policy in a region used to water abundance, and waste.

…The compact is clear in banning long-distance bulk water engineering or transport projects. Limited exemptions to the ban on out-of-Great Lakes Basin diversions are available to communities in counties that straddle the watershed boundaries.

What gives critics concerns are two interlocking provisions of the compact that they say open the gates to large-volume exports of water in packages like bottles. First, the compact defines “product” to include that which is produced “by mechanical or human effort” and intended for “intermediate or end users.” Anything meeting this definition — including, presumably, water packaged in bottles — is exempt from the export ban. A second clause holds that water exported in containers under 5.7 gallons (20 liters) or less in volume is not treated as a diversion, although individual states can treat such proposals more stringently if they choose.

The result, charge the critics, is a policy that endorses withdrawal and packaging of enormous volumes of Great Lakes water in these containers. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, says this “establishes a precedent that water can be grabbed by profit-hungry corporations who want to claim it is a product not subject to the compact. This undermines the very purpose of the compact and creates a dangerous precedent for exporting water in the U.S., in this instance from the largest body of freshwater in North America.”

In other words, an agreement born in 1998 because of outrage about the sale of Lake Superior water as a product may allow the sale of all Great Lakes Basin water as a product in containers.

While conceding that “the privatization of water is a deeply troubling concern here and around the world,” Cameron Davis, the president and CEO of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, a nonprofit organization, dismisses concerns that the compact sets a policy or precedent sanctioning commercialization.

“That’s just wrong,” Davis says. “All you need to do is grab a bottle of Wisconsin beer, or any other of the fantastic brews we have in the Great Lakes region, to know that water’s been put into bottles for more than a century.

“At the end of the day, if you’re buying bottled water, well, you’re probably paying at least 10 times what it costs to filter water from your own tap that’s likely even healthier for you anyway. Some say that’s naive. Or, Evian spelled backwards.”

Olson and other critics argue that water exported as an ingredient in a product like beer is legally distinct from the sale of water itself. They add that new international trade rules set by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization since the 1990s make it next to impossible to stop the sale of water in commerce once it has begun.

Grenetta Thomassey, who obtained her doctorate in public policy at the Northern Arizona University and is now policy director for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey, Mich., has both an outsider’s and insider’s perspective on the compact. “The Great Lakes family of states and provinces,” she says, has “been too focused on arguments related to how the water is used when the real argument to be made to the rest of the world is that our ecosystem can’t survive if the water doesn’t stay here. Period. Of course, it was absolutely necessary to provide for economic use of the Great Lakes when the compact was written. … In order to use these lakes for our economic base and lifestyle, the water has to remain here and the ecosystem has to thrive.

“The compact is rooted in conservation. That focus should be front and center.”

In August, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, wrote the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., expressing concern that the compact “contains major loopholes that could … result in the privatization of Great Lakes waters for commercial sale.” He urged Conyers to include language in the final committee report making it clear that Congress does not interpret the compact to legally transform Great Lakes Basin waters into a product. He also urged passage of his own HR6814, which strengthens the public trust doctrine provisions of the 1986 WRDA provision.

Despite the reservations expressed by Kucinich and Stupak, the House appears poised to consent to the compact as early as September. Proponents argue that delay could fatally undermine the pact as Congressional voting power continues to shift to the arid South and West. The critics, however, remain unconvinced of the need for swift approval.

Says attorney Olson: “The argument that the compact would be at risk because it would take too long to change it through further negotiations isn’t applicable, because if Congress imposes conditions, the states are basically bound to such conditions. It’s either now or never.”

This entry was posted on Friday, August 29th, 2008 at 12:40 pm and is filed under Canada, Great Lakes, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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