Local legislators in Michigan counties battle over a bill that will expand on water protections established by the 2008 Great Lakes Compact.
A proposed bill that declares Michigan’s groundwater a “public trust” has set off a storm of controversy, with opponents claiming that the legislation would expose property owners to new state fees, and supporters arguing that it will protect against outside interests siphoning off the state’s water.
The latest skirmish came last week, when a panel of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners narrowly passed a resolution asking the state legislature to vote against the bill. The resolution claims that the legislation would interfere with traditional water rights and limit the ability of farmers and lakeside homeowners to use the resource. It passed by a six-to-five vote along party lines in the southeastern Michigan county, with Republicans opposed to the bill and Democrats in support, respectively. The full board is scheduled to vote on the resolution Thursday.
-State Rep. Dan Scripps
The legislator at the center of the upheaval, State Rep. Dan Scripps (D-Leland), said that the bill’s intent is to strengthen property rights rather than reduce them.
“I’m trying to end the idea of groundwater as a commodity,” Scripps told the Traverse City Record-Eagle in March. Scripps told Circle of Blue that he introduced the bill in September because 2008’s landmark Great Lakes Compact did not go far enough to protect the rest of the state’s waters.
“Groundwater, surface water, Great Lakes water—these are public resources that should be protected in the future,” he said.
Since its introduction, House Bill 5319 has been praised by water rights experts, pilloried by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and argued over in numerous letters to the editor in newspapers across the state.
Meanwhile the move by Oakland County politicians has been “sharply criticized” by Clean Water Action, a national citizens’ group working for clean, safe and affordable water.
“What the vote today says is that the groundwater that feeds Oakland County’s streams, keeps Oakland County lakes alive and is the circulatory system for our entire Great Lakes ecosystem doesn’t deserve to be safeguarded from a state government that is sometimes all too willing to allow our waters to be sold for profit and exported to thirsty countries like China,” Cyndi Roper, Clean Water Action’s special projects director, said in a news release. “We strongly urge the Board of Commissioner to reject those who want to turn Michigan’s waters over to corporate interests so, like our jobs, water can be outsourced in unlimited amounts to China and other places.”
Jim Olson, an environmental attorney from Traverse City, Michigan, and one of the region’s foremost authorities on water law, called for the passage of Scripps’ bill in a commentary in the Detroit Free Press.
“If public trust principles are not reaffirmed then the water commons that supports all life and economy here will be diminished in flow, level and quality, and claimed by special or foreign interests under international treaties such as NAFTA… In other words, industries and the jobs they produce, like farming—Michigan’s second largest industry—will be forced to compete with the infinite demand for water anywhere in the country, continent or world,” he wrote.
Half of the world’s population will be without safe drinking water in less than 30 years if current levels of water waste and pollution are not curbed, Olson noted. He said recent surveys have estimated that the world’s freshwater demands will outstrip the supply by more than 30 percent.
Scripps has introduced a new bill that he hopes will calm fears of new state fees on water, according to the Michigan Messenger. Introduced last week, the bill forbids state and local governments from imposing “any taxes or fees on water withdrawals from water wells on residential property.”