Water fight: Great Lakes activist fears loophole in Compact

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By Zachariah Buck
Great Lakes Echo

Water is a finite resource that will be mistreated and overused if not carefully defended, said environmental consultant and Michigan State University alumnus Dave Dempsey in a recent talk at MSU’s Communications Arts and Sciences building.

“The Great Lakes are a battleground,” he said. An environmental policy consultant for more than 25 years, Dempsey won a 2005 Michigan Notable Book Award for On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century.

The Great Lakes hold 6 quadrillion gallons, or one-fifth of the earth’s fresh water. In many parts of the world the demand for water is much higher than the supply, leaving cities like Atlanta looking at the Great Lakes as a source, he said.

Large sources of water worldwide are increasingly shrinking and polluted, he said, including the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the Great Lakes, which became severely polluted at the beginning of the 20th century.

Dempsey said rainfall renews only 1 percent of Great Lakes water annually – the rest remains from melted glaciers. A 2004 Department of Environmental Quality study found that fewer than 1 percent is withdrawn each year.

But Dempsey isn’t convinced that will always be the case.

Because of the Great Lakes’ vulnerability to public and private enterprise, U.S. Congress approved the Great Lakes Compact in 2008, intended to protect Great Lake basin waters from being diverted to places like Atlanta and Asia. However, he said, a loophole in the compact allows Nestle and other bottled water companies to take as much water as desired, as long as it is in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons.

“Right now there is small bottled water use, the main fear is the potential,” Dempsey said.

The global bottled water market is estimated to increase more than 41 percent from 2006 to 2011, to more than $86 trillion, according to an industry report by the International Bottled Water Association.

Dempsey said the loophole in the Great Lakes Compact could allow the lakes to become a large commodity, rather than a public common. While the 2008 compact prevented the diversion of the Great Lakes, Dempsey said the loophole needed to be eliminated to assure the safety of the lakes.

He hopes additional legislation will protect Great Lakes water, but said, “I’d say it’ll be an uphill battle. Nestle and allies have the inside track, politically.”

Unfortunately, many environmental groups don’t take the issue seriously, he said.

“But I think the public will strongly support keeping water in public hands forever. A strong educational campaign with citizens might overcome the special interests.”

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation encourages citizens to pledge their support for water as a public trust on its Web site, savemiwater.org.

“People should shun bottled water and use tap. Bottled water is outrageously expensive and wasteful. If consumers turn their back on bottled water the industry will wither and die,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey said a more controversial solution, which he supports, would be for government to end tax breaks for corporations, such as Nestle, that bottle water from the Great Lakes.

Dempsey currently serves as Great Lakes Policy Advisor for Clean Water Action and as a consultant to many other environmental and conservation organizations. He served as Michigan Gov. Games Blanchard’s environmental advisor from 1983-1989.

“The Great Lakes are part of my identity,” he said.

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