Water rights prove complex global topic
Some find pact doesn't simplify issue
By Tom Henry
Published July 5, 2005
It was an odd sight, even in the wacky world of billboard
Four guys with straws were sucking water out of the Great
The year was 2001. Great Lakes governors and premiers
had just met in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that June for a historic
summit aimed at heading off any threats to siphon water
out of the lakes.
A nonprofit group called Citizens for Michigan's Future
came up with a billboard ad for portions of I-94 and I-96
that depicted a Texas cowboy, a Utah skiier, a California
surfer, and a New Mexico hombre slurping away from a trough
that is drawn in the shape of lakes Michigan and Huron.
Beneath it was the phrase: "Back off Suckers. Water
Diversion ... The Last Straw."
People in all parts of the world seem paranoid about
water - or, rather, their fears of running out of a vital
resource they perceive to be rightfully theirs.
The Great Lakes region is no exception. Hence a set of
proposed agreements called Annex 2001 was drawn up. The
agreement sought to unite Great Lakes governors and premiers
on a regional water plan that would replace a 1985 charter
among governors. New versions went out for 60 days of
public comment last week.
Political observers mused about how President Bush found
time during the height of his 2004 re-election campaign
to proclaim that he would not allow Great Lakes water
to be diverted to the parched Southwest. He made that
campaign promise in Traverse City, Mich., near the Lake
The irony of that pledge was that in July, 2001, only
a month after Great Lakes governors had met in Niagara
Falls, Mr. Bush had told a group of foreign journalists
at a special White House gathering that he wouldn't turn
down Canadian water for his home state of Texas if he
ever had the chance to get it.
The remark took off like wildfire in the Canadian press
that summer and administration officials declined to say
if it was a flippant remark intended only as a joke.
Water rights are complex by any measure and to some people,
Annex 2001 doesn't simplify things.
Consider the parallel plights of two major employers
separated by the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.
On the west side of the lake lies Milwaukee, home of
the Miller Brewing Co. For decades, Miller has practically
opened a spigot to get treated Lake Michigan water from
the city of Milwaukee.
Miller then adds malt, barley, and hops so it can brew
and bottle products to sell everywhere.
Sounds easy, right? Well, about 150 miles to the east
lies Nestle North America's Ice Mountain facility in western
Michigan's Mecosta County. Nestle doesn't make beer. It
simply bottles water.
Lawyers for Nestle, a Michigan citizens' group, and state
government have locked horns over the amount of water
Ice Mountain bottles.
Most of it comes from the ground, not the lake itself.
There's a difference of opinion over how much of that
groundwater actually replenishes Lake Michigan, but that's
not the only issue.
On May 27, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued a moratorium
against new or increased bottled water operations. That
came after Nestle had entered into an agreement with the
city of Evart, Mich., to buy its water and keep Ice Mountain
afloat. Nestle pursued the Evart water because a judge
had ordered the company to stop drawing groundwater, citing
potential adverse effects.
The state allowed Nestle to continue buying Evart's water,
but ordered that all Ice Mountain sales from that facility
be confined to the eight Great Lakes states. Nestle fired
back with a lawsuit against the state on June 17, claiming
it has the right to sell Ice Mountain wherever it wants.
Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural
Resources, has led the Water Management Working Group
that the Great Lakes governors' council authorized to
write Annex 2001.
He said beer gets an easier break than bottled water
under Annex 2001. Beer is considered a product. Bottled
water is just bottled water.
George Kuper claims he's as confused as anyone. And he
As president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based
Council of Great Lakes Industries, Mr. Kuper has studied
Annex 2001 intensely from Day One. He's traveled throughout
the region on behalf of industry and had a seat at the
table of an advisory panel that reported to the working
He said the focus for protecting Great Lakes water "ought
to be not on locking it up, but on how to use it."
"The whole theory of water as a reusable commodity
seems to be missing. The whole focus seems to be on how
to lock it up and it drives me crazy," he said.
Legal scholars, public officials, tribal leaders, and
environmental activists take differing views. They question
everything from respect for nature to the nitty-gritty
science of water return-flow concepts.
Some activists concede that Annex 2001, ironically, has
been one of the few proposals with an environmental theme
that has splintered environmental groups themselves.
"Is it perfect? No. But it is going to be pretty
strong," said Molly Flanagan, a former Ohio activist
and a current board member of Great Lakes United, a binational
group that has been active on the diversion issue for
"We think we'll have pretty good justification to
tell the rest of the world they can't use Great Lakes
water," she said.
The most radical - and legally risky - change to the
proposal is the language calling for an outright ban on
diversions, observers said.
A legal team advising the Council of Great Lakes Governors
in 1999 said that such a ban would violate interstate
commerce laws and thus be unconstitutional in America.
So no ban was proposed, to the dismay of many Canadians.
The new version calls for a ban with limited exceptions.
Mr. Kuper said the ban was proposed "to get Canada
back at the table."
Mr. Speck declined to go that far. But in past months,
he noted Canada's opposition. At various junctures, he
said U.S. officials may have to exclude Canada if differences
couldn't be resolved - something they wanted to avoid,
because Canadians were bypassed for the 1985 charter.
Annex 2001 started coming together in 1998, after a group
of Canadian businessmen called the Nova Group had obtained
a permit to export Lake Superior water to Asia. The permit
was eventually relinquished, but governors sought legal
counsel because they believed that case had exposed the
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