The dilligence and leadership of two legislators — Republican Senator Patty Birkholz of Saugatuck and Democratic Representative Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor — has resulted in a monumental compromise and agreement on state water policy that will help tremendously as we seek to protect the Great Lakes from distant states and regions that will undoubtedly covet Michigan’s water resources in decades to come.
Click here for all the nitty-gritty on the compromise legislation.
Key components as reported by the Freep:
On Monday, legislative leaders announced agreement. On Tuesday, in a gesture that was as symbolic as rare, both their committees met in joint session to approve the 12-bill package – with zero “no” votes cast. On Wednesday, both houses passed the legislation and sent it on to Governor Granholm for signature.
The lead lawmakers, Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) and Sen. Patricia Birkholtz (R-Saugatuck), have been negotiating for months on a multiple-bill package that would enter Michigan into a compact with seven other Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces governing the use and withdrawal of water from the lakes. The five lakes hold around 20 percent of the world’s drinkable fresh water.
The legislation sets standards for water use within Michigan. A permit would be required to take more water from underground aquifers than 1 million gallons a day for farm irrigation, bottled water and other industrial uses. Permits also would be required if water taken from cold streams reduces flow by more than 20 percent or cuts the fish population – mainly trout – more than 3 percent. And the legislation sets standards for export – bottled water, in particular – from the Great Lakes basin.
Early on, both Sen. Birkholtz and Rep. Warren agreed that the overall objective was to strike a balance between protecting Michigan’s water resources and allowing commercial use of that water. “Economic development and job creation and protection of Michigan’s world class natural resources are not mutually exclusive goals,” Ms. Warren said. “This agreement gives businesses certainty about how much water they can take and how they can grow,” remarked Ms. Birkholtz.
Negotiations on the complex package took more than 1,000 hours of workgroup meetings and conference calls. The process required resolution of partisan and chamber differences – Republicans control the state Senate, while Democrats run the House – but also very complex disagreements between the various powerful interest groups – environmentalists, farmers, manufacturers, water bottlers and business owners.
A key part of the package is a computerized water withdrawal assessment tool, the product of new, Michigan-based technology. “To our knowledge, no other state in the country is using science to protect water resources in this way; and no state has protected as much of their water resources as we are doing with these laws,” according to the Michigan Environmental Council’s James Clift, a respected environmental leader.
Only Michigan and Pennsylvania have yet to agree to the interstate Great Lakes water compact. Once they’ve signed on, congressional approval is necessary to give Great Lakes states collective jurisdiction over water use within the basin.
Congress has approved most interstate compacts of this sort, but Midwest states are losing population and political clout to water-poor states in the south and west. The fear is that envious and thirsty eyes are being cast on the estimated 6 quadrillion gallons of water in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Compact is designed to thwart this threat by prohibiting export of water outside the basin, except for small amounts of bottled water.
Both Warren and Birkholtz are regarded in Lansing as among the sane and sensible members of the legislature. Both have expressed (separately) frustration with the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed the political system. Warren is chair of the Great Lakes and Environment Committee. Birkholtz is chair of the senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
When I reached Rep. Warren after the joint committee vote, she was upbeat. “What a process! It seems as though Lansing is so broken that sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done. From the time we started eight months ago, both Senator Birkholtz and I were committed to working together until this got done. At any stage in the process, people could have drawn a line in the sand and walked out. But at every step of the way, we worked to bring people together, and finally it worked.”
Sen. Birkholtz was equally enthusiastic. “This process teaches an important lesson for us all. You have to sit down with your counterparts and decide on a goal to be reached. And then you have to keep at it, day after day, disagreement after disagreement, until you get it done. Ultimately, you have to recognize that the real goal is to do what’s best for all the people of this state. That clearly applies to our water resources.”
Both Rep. Warren and Sen. Birkholtz get my award for Lansing heroines for all of Michigan. Through sense and sanity, level headedness and attention to detail, they demonstrated the legislative process is in Michigan is not necessarily fated to dysfunction and hyper-partisanship. They recognized that their real jobs were to act as custodians of the general good for all of us. We owe them both a deep debt of gratitude.
Editor’ Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics, and a former chairman of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank which publishes the Michigan Scorecard. The opinions expressed here are Power’ own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.