More than 60 years ago, the Ogoki River and Long Lac (Long Lake) in Ontario were re-routed from the undrinkable salt water of Hudson Bay to Lake Superior to generate hydroelectric power for Canada. This diversion continues to add almost 1.2 trillion additional gallons of fresh water to the Great Lakes each year. If this were captured as one-gallon bottles that sold for $1 each, it would fetch more than twice the combined gross state product of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Our second wealthiest state, Texas, wouldn't be able to buy it all; California would need to surrender almost two of every three dollars. And just as awe-inspiring, all of the world's desalination plants combined convert more than 1.2 trillion gallons of seawater into drinkable water every year.
These perspectives belong in "Great Lakes for Sale: From Whitecaps to Bottlecaps," a recent book about Great Lakes water diversions and the bottled water industry. Unfortunately, author Dave Dempsey too often avoids facts that undercut his stated premise — that Great Lakes water should not be "disturbed for anything but the most paramount human priorities." Those diversions into Lake Superior are not discussed in the book's 100 pages, but the quantitatively smaller man-made Chicago River diversion — the largest single removal of water from the Great Lakes Basin - rates four written references, two photographs and one map.
The book also examines the 2001 decision by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to allow Perrier (which was later purchased by Nestlé) to bottle and remove 300 million gallons of Great Lakes Basin groundwater per year from Mecosta Township, near Big Rapids. However, readers are not informed that this represents less than three hours worth of the freshwater added to the basin yearly via the Ontario diversion mentioned above.
Similarly, the 2000 U.S. Census counted just 1,184 homes in Mecosta Township. With this in mind, did the 200 jobs that Nestlé was providing to the local economy by 2003 rise to the level of a "paramount" human priority when matched against the amount of water at issue? You won't find out by reading this book.
In fact, the MDEQ and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth did weigh this trade-off when those jobs were put in jeopardy. On Nov. 25, 2003, when a local judge decided in favor of a group suing Nestlé over the water removal and ordered the plant to cease operations, the state agencies jointly filed an amicus brief asking the Michigan Court of Appeals to prevent the shutdown. The brief specifically cited concerns over the lost jobs and pointed out that the local water level was at a three year high -even after the plant had been in operation for the prior year and a half.
"Great Lakes for Sale" applauds those suing Nestlé and is dismissive of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her MDEQ director. But was the brief correct about the local water running at a three-year high? The book fails to mention — let alone refute — the MDEQ finding.
Dempsey says in the prologue that he will not shy away from emotional appeals, and that while he will "give you the facts," sole reliance on them will lead to "the end of the Great Lakes and so much else."
Drawing outside the lines of provable fact, the author asserts that water has a "spiritual value" and that its private sale should most often be illegal. He nods approvingly at a Minneapolis theater that restored its public drinking fountain so as to create a place "where people meet in the communal act of sharing water," and that also bans bottled water to protest its use as "an individual commodity."
For Dempsey, not all water diversions are equal, despite his assertion that the lakes might die from "a hundred million cuts." The sale of bottled water diverts far less from the Great Lakes Basin than many industries selling the same water in products such as cherries, corn, soft drinks and more. While he doesn't dispute this quantitative disparity, Dempsey declares the difference to be that the water bottlers are asserting "ownership" over the water they use while those other commercial producers are not.
This distinction may explain why he doesn't tell us about Long Lac, Ogoki, and the MDEQ findings on water levels in Mecosta. His main concern doesn't appear to be the quantity of Great Lakes water, but the supposed immorality of anyone owning "the source of life." Left out of the analysis is the fact that private sale and ownership is the norm for other "paramount human priorities," such as food, clothing and shelter.
"Great Lakes for Sale" was written to advance a peculiar legal and political perspective about selling water, one the author admits isn't shared by many of his allies in the environmental community. If the Great Lakes were under siege because of employers who bottled water — or used it for any other purpose — then you won't find enough in this book to prove the case. What's left out goes a long way toward undermining that very point.