Water Rights: A Hot Topic

January 14, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — The Great Lakes, Great Michigan coalition is putting pressure on state Sen. Jerry Van Woerkom, R-Muskegon, in opposition to proposed legislation they feel would not give Michigan citizens enough local control of "exports" of water from the state by commercial bottlers.

Last week, some West Michigan residents plus other representatives of the coalition visited Van Woerkom's office in Muskegon — he wasn't in — to ask him to support Michigan House and Senate legislation that is endorsed by the coalition. They also expressed their opposition to Senate bills 212 and 860, which Van Woerkom supports. He is vice chair of the Senate committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs, and is a supporter of the bills introduced by Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck.

"Our elected officials must side with the public, not private interests out for profit, when it comes to protecting our water," said Cynthia Price, president of Muskegon Save Our Shoreline, at a small rally in downtown Muskegon.

Price said there are two competing packages of proposed bills in Lansing now, as the state legislature prepares to endorse the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a formal agreement by Michigan and several other states bordering the Great Lakes.

Senate Bill 212 "proposes to implement the (compact) in a minimal way," according to a handout from Great Lakes, Great Michigan. The coalition also opposes it because, it said, it does not give local residents sufficient participation in decisions regarding large water uses by commercial interests.

"The debate shaping up is … who has control of our water?" said Price. The legislation endorsed by the coalition, supported by Michigan Representatives Doug Bennett and Mary Valentine, "would help citizens defend our most valuable resource against international corporations looking to take our water."

"Michigan's water resources are our economic ace in the hole, and we shouldn't be dealing our waters away," said Blue Lake Township Planning Commissioner Jim Cordray.

Cordray said that last year representatives of Nestle Waters North America, which bottles water elsewhere in Michigan under its Ice Mountain brand, were in Blue Lake Township doing tests of the groundwater and local officials didn't know about it "until several months later." A Nestle spokesperson later said they decided against plans to bottle spring water under the Owasippe Scout Reservation.

"The public must have a say in large-scale water withdrawals," said Don Roy, a member of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. "Extending the public trust to groundwater will ensure public control and that local values are reflected in water use decisions. Michigan's current law is archaic."

Roy added that "the opposite of public trust is privatization."

"Our elected officials must support the public's ability to control large water withdrawals — not international corporations," said Tom Thompson of the White River Watershed Partnership.

Van Woerkom told the Business Journal that the controversy is about the "assessment tool" in the legislation, which indicates how quickly a watershed can recharge and how big a withdrawal can be made "without adversely impacting the surrounding area."

He said he is aware of a "lack of trust" in the assessment, but stated, "It doesn't mean the DEQ is not going to do any study when somebody comes in and tries to make a withdrawal (of water), and it doesn't mean that the people are not going to be able to come to public hearings on that."

The assessment factors were "put together in a very conservative fashion, knowing that water tables rise and fall on their own all the time. … It's just going to require close monitoring to make sure that this assessment tool works. … We are trying to do this in a reasonable, scientific fashion. We don’t want to put Michigan's water at risk," said Van Woerkom.

At the rally in Hackley Park, Great Lakes, Great Michigan supporters displayed the names of more than 600 constituents who they said wrote or e-mailed Van Woerkom, calling on him to support the coalition-endorsed legislation.

"Representatives Doug Bennett and Mary Valentine have demonstrated leadership in protecting our Great Lakes and local water resources by sponsoring the Great Lakes, Great Michigan legislation," said Cyndi Roper of Clean Water Action.

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