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Where the Water Is

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Will commercialization mean sunset for the Great Lakes?

This post is part of our participation in Blog Action Day 2010, which is on the topic of Water.

Willie Sutton famously said when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”  Why would anyone want to rob the Great Lakes?  Because that’s where the water is.

Almost 20% of the world’s surface freshwater (6 quadrillion gallons) is in the Great Lakes.  Talk of tapping that water reaches back decades, and includes proposals to use Lake Superior water in a coal slurry pipeline reaching to Wyoming and a massive pipe dream of pumping Lake Michigan water to slake the thirst of America’s fast-growing, arid Southwest.

But a greater threat than pipelines and aqueducts today is the slow commercialization of fresh water.  The Great Lakes states took effective measures to stop the bulk shipment of fresh water in pipelines through the Great Lakes Compact, which took effect in 1998.  It essentially bans such shipments.

But the Compact does not ban the removal of Great Lakes water, in any total volume, in millions of small containers, such as plastic bottles that are put up for sale in retail markets across America or abroad.  The same volume of water removal through pipelines banned by the Compact is unaffected by the Compact when it’s in bottles.

That probably wasn’t what the public expected when it protested a Canadian company’s proposal in 1998 to ship 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water per year to Asian markets.  That outcry stopped the company’s proposal and led to the 10-year process of negotiating the Compact.

Today, that company couldn’t ship unpackaged Lake Superior water in freighters, but it would have virtual carte blanche to do so in the same freighters if it bottled the water.

While a citizens’ group, FLOW for Water has organized to fight future water removal proposals, and another, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, has fought a Nestle water bottling operation for most of the last decade, policymakers have generally condoned the commercial shipment and sale of Great Lakes water in bottles.  Which leads to the frequently-asked question:  Whose water is it anyway?

Control of freshwater – for public use or private profit – is a major issue of this century.

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