Representatives of the Great Lakes states recently issued a revised draft of "Annex 2001," an intended amendment to the Great Lakes Charter, which is a voluntary water management agreement among the Great Lakes states. The revised amendment is an improvement on the original, but Michigan policy-makers should still reject it.
The original Annex 2001 received a deservedly cold reception when it was released about one year ago. Business groups disliked the amendment’s new water-use regulatory regime; state officials felt the plan required them to cede too much state sovereignty for economic development; and environmental groups feared the agreement would make it easier to divert Great Lakes water. Given that there was no chance that legislators in the various states would codify the agreement into law, the annex was revised in an attempt to rescue it.
Revisions to the annex have resulted in two significant changes that will probably make it more palatable to state officials. First, protections from out-of-basin diversions have been strengthened, in particular through a gubernatorial veto that preserves state control over such diversions. These protections, however, do not actually go that far, since municipalities and counties that are only partially inside the basin have a limited exemption that permits them to divert water more easily.
Second, the revised amendment has dropped the ill-conceived "benefits standard," an idea from the earlier version of the amendment that was impossible to define and difficult to enforce. The concept behind the benefits standard was to treat in-basin water users the same as out-of-basin water users. The problem with that approach is that setting the regulatory threshold high exempts most users, but makes it difficult to defend against diversions, while setting the regulatory threshold low includes most users, but presents an unbearable regulatory burden to Great Lakes states businesses and farmers who require the use of water.
Ultimately, the revised annex shares a major flaw with the original draft. It is based on a faulty premise: that we are short of water in the Great Lakes basin and therefore must impose a regulatory regime to restrict water use. Although this approach makes for a strong emotional appeal to voters, who are told that elected officials are "protecting their water," it is not supported by the facts. Nowhere in the document is there even a mention of the phenomenon of hydrological recharge through precipitation. Just reading the document, one would be lead to believe that water only leaves the Great Lakes and never returns.
This, of course, is nonsense. Great Lakes states are not located in the desert, but instead are blessed with abundant precipitation in the form of snow and rainfall that replenish the Great Lakes. Water levels in the Great Lakes are continually in a state of flux. In fact, water levels are determined primarily by year-to-year changes in the amount and pattern of precipitation. The levels are not appreciably affected by how much water human beings withdraw from the lakes.
In the absence of a compelling reason, it would be unwise for Michigan to agree to the annex. It would mandate additional regulatory controls on water usage of 100,000 gallons per day on average in any 90-day period — a limit that is lower than it sounds, and that would affect many water users in the state. The annex would also require the state to cede its economic development decision-making to the governors of the other Great Lakes states whenever projects use 5 million gallons per day. Adoption of the revised annex would thus result in an increased regulatory burden to current and prospective job providers in the state — the last thing Michigan’s economy needs.
Russ Harding is senior environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.