Will Bottled Water Companies Suck the Great Lakes Dry?


One of the Great Lakes region's members of Congress has launched a campaign to stop any potential for commercialization of Great Lakes water.

Northern Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat, on June 16 introduced a resolution (H. Res. 551) that would put the nation's legislative body on record against any claims of private ownership of Great Lakes water in the wake of last year's federal approval of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. The compact sets rules for water withdrawals and conservation and prohibits most transfers of water out of the Great Lakes watershed.

The resolution seeks to make it clear that Congress did not intend through approval of the compact to open the door to claims by private investors that they can legally take, package and sell Great Lakes water without review by the region's eight governors.

The issue has been sensitive for over a decade. In 1998, a Canadian company made a bid to sell 50 tankers of Lake Superior water per year to Asian customers. The resulting firestorm of public indignation prompted the company to cancel its plans.

The issue took on new urgency for Michigan in 2001, when state agencies gave the go-ahead to water-pumping operations by what is now Nestle Waters North America. The company is now pumping as much as 300 million gallons per day of water from two Michigan sites for bottling.

A grassroots organization, the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, successfully challenged the company's pumping operation in a trial court, but that ruling was overturned after state government intervened on behalf of Nestle. MCWC and Nestle are going back to a Michigan court in early July.

Stupak called the taking of water from the Great Lakes watershed for bottling alarming. He added: "Of much greater concern is a potential trade dispute between the United States and any multinational corporation or foreign government interested in diverting our water. We owe it to the people of Michigan, and the entire Great Lakes Basin, to ensure that Great Lakes Compact preserves and protects the quality and quantity of Great Lakes water."

Stupak and supporters in an emerging citizen coalition called Flow for Water: Preserving the Promise of the Great Lakes argue that the compact contains a troubling flaw. Its definition of "product" could be exploited by commercial interests, they contend, since it defines water when extracted and packaged for consumer use as exempt from the pact's prohibitions and limitations on water transfers.

And a provision enabling any of the eight Great Lakes states to apply tougher standards to small containers of packaged water (less than 20 liters in volume), they say, doesn't close the loophole. None of the states has yet sought to require commercial shipments of water out of the region to be subject to the compact's requirements for interstate consultation and approval.

The risk, they say, is that the region could lose control of Great Lakes water management and endanger the health of the ecosystem, which contains 18 percent of the world's available surface fresh water.

Stupak's resolution would express the sense of Congress that "the definition of diversion ... and the exception for 'products' from such definition, did not intend that water itself in any size container or package is a 'product' and exempt from the definition of diversion subject to the compact."

But some say the compact already goes as far as it can in shutting off the commercialization spigot without running afoul of domestic and international trade law. Any uncertainty that might exist, they say, predates the compact and is far outweighed by the benefits the pact brings in water conservation and a legally defensible barrier to most water diversions.

The policy director of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, a northern Michigan environmental group, said the compact is not the problem when it comes to commercialization.

"The issue of making water a 'commodity' grew out of the globalization of our economy," said Policy Director Grenetta Thomassey. "This was a major problem before the compact was negotiated, and it remains a problem. Nowhere in the compact is bottled water called a product, but it is already viewed that way in many international trade arenas."

"Water is life. NWF strongly advocates that people have a right to water," says Marc Smith, the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes regional representative. "We embrace any effort to prevent water privatization, and we believe the compact does just that."

David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, declined comment on Stupak's resolution. "Right now, our focus is on implementation of the compact" and a companion agreement among the states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, he said.

Brian Beauchamp, the coordinator of the Flow: Great Lakes initiative and a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, says the overwhelming majority of citizens support Stupak's move.

"In speaking with people from across the state and around the country, it's very apparent that the public is strongly behind banning the private sale of water," Beauchamp says. "The idea that water can be treated as a product to be bought and sold by the highest bidder is at odds with the sentiments of most."

Gary Wilson, a Chicago-based Great Lakes advocate, says at least one compact supporter acknowledges the pact left the door open to commercialization. "I suspect some of the compact's most ardent supporters are suffering from buyer's remorse. One such supporter privately indicated that the compact still leaves the Great Lakes exposed to export via international trade agreements. We gave up too much and got too little," he said.

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