Michigan's Two-faced Water Play

In the latest chapter of a now six-year-long legal battle, the courageous Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation head back to the courtroom later this week in an attempt to stave off the reckless exploitation of the state's groundwater resources by the booming bottled water business, represented by Nestle Waters.

The case is fraught with legal questions. Arguments in front of the state Supreme Court on Thursday likely will center on whether the citizens have standing to sue on behalf of protecting the state's water resources. Other major questions relate to whether major corporations can mine, bottle, and sell a public resource for private profit, and the balance of surface water and groundwater rights for property owners.

But perhaps the most pressing big-picture question as the state and region deindustrializes and struggles to evolve its economy to compete in the Age of Knowledge is this: What is the plan for using the Great Lakes to prosper in the 21st century?

Clearly, Michigan and the Great Lakes region can sustain a robust bottled water industry under the appropriate laws and environomental protections. But is that really the kind of innovative industry that will diversify the state's portfolio for the modern era? There is a range of new, high-tech businesses organizing around the water resources, many focused on cleaning, conserving, and restoring the increasingly valuable resource. Not selling it off. So which new industries do we want to lure, invest in, and grow? What is the economic development strategy to leverage the Great Lakes asset?

On a separate but related topic, the timing of this renewed interest in the MCWC v. Nestle case sheds new light on the hypocrisy of Michigan's immature water policy. Three months ago the state fired off a terse memo to its neighbor, Wisconsin, warning that plans to pipe Lake Michigan water outside the region's natural borders to meet the growing needs of thirsty communities like New Berlin ran afoul of Great Lakes law.

Now its permitting multinational corporations to pump fresh groundwater - the lifeblood of majestic water bodies like Lake Michigan - and sell it where ever the market demands in exchange for a few dozen jobs and some tax revenue? That two-faced approach to managing the region's shared water resources seeds conflict, not cooperation, in the campaign to promote sustainable stewardship of the world's largest freshwater cathedral.