Concern over a drought-stricken Southeast and comments last fall by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have made the compact, a water regulation agreement among eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, a regional and bipartisan priority.
The compact would require the approval of all eight governors and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec before water could be diverted from the Great Lakes Basin. It would also enact water conservation measures within the basin.
“We strongly support passage of the compact,” said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “The economic impact of taking our water elsewhere would be devastating.”
But Russ Harding, former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and now a researcher at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free market-oriented think tank, said approving the compact would be a mistake.
“If I was in Ohio, I’d probably really like it,” but the agreement would give short shrift to Michigan, he said, since it is the only state that lies entirely within the Great Lakes Basin.
The compact would allow governors of other Great Lakes states to veto economic development projects in Michigan, according to Harding.
“It takes away one economic advantage we have ... abundant water,” he said.
Clift said he isn’t as concerned as Harding about other states’ veto powers.
“I think it’s really kind of a red herring he’s throwing out there as a reason to oppose it.”
If future development projects in Michigan meet the conditions of the agreement, Clift said, “I don’t see the other Great Lakes governors coming in and vetoing a project.”
However, Harding said the compact would have adverse effects on Michigan’s economy.
Several months ago, he said he was contacted by a firm, which he declined to name, that sought to build a tree nursery in Michigan. The firm decided against the investment, which Harding estimated at $500 million, fearing that the compact would not allow it to withdraw sufficient water.
“I find that difficult to believe,” said Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township. The compact makes provisions for agribusiness and has support from the Michigan Farm Bureau, she said, “and I don’t see how they’d be affected.”
Last fall, during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Richardson called for a national water policy, saying that northern states with plenty of water should help more arid states.
Talk surrounding the agreement usually turns to the threat of water withdrawals to the Southwest or, more recently, the Southeast, but Harding calls such fears unwarranted.
“I think that’s nonsense,” he said, adding that the greater threat is water diversion to the areas of other Great Lakes states that lie outside the basin.
Birkholz, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, which recently approved the compact, disagrees.
“There is new technology to take water by shipping or through pipes,” she said.
While Harding said that to get approval for the infrastructure required for long-distance diversion of Great Lakes water would be “virtually impossible,” Birkholz maintains that other states and countries need water, “and to think that they are not going to want it (from the Great Lakes) is not dealing with reality.”
Great Lakes diversion projects are currently governed by the 1986 Water Resource Development Act, a federal law that Harding said allows any Great Lakes state governor to veto withdrawals from the basin.
Charles Owens, Michigan director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said that’s sufficient protection.
“There’s this artificial urgency created that we must do something,” he said. “But we feel that if we do nothing, we’re actually better off.”
Some compact supporters argue that as Great Lakes states’ political clout diminishes and their congressional delegations shrink, existing laws could be weakened by arid states with growing populations and influence.
In that case, Clift said, Michigan would have no protection from a diversion.
Owens isn’t convinced.
“We feel strongly that the environmental community has been pulling a bait-and-switch,” he said, by using the “straw man” of thirsty Southwest states to create urgency, when “what they really want is to control water use in Michigan by private citizens in their own backyards.”
To take effect, the compact must be passed by all eight states and both provinces, and ratified by Congress and the Canadian Parliament. So far, only Minnesota, Illinois and Ontario have passed bills to enact the agreement.
Bills for passage of the compact in Michigan are awaiting action in the House and Senate.