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February 16, 2008

Dave Dempsey, a long-time Michigan conservationist and environmental policy specialist currently based in Minnesota, has a new book coming out around Earth Day, April 22. This will be his fourth book, the second focusing on the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes for Sale chronicles the formulation of the, as yet to be fully ratified, Great Lakes Compact — a multi-state and Canadian province pact designed to protect the lakes from water diversion — and outlines its potential far-reaching impacts. Dempsey also explains other threats of commercialization of the system’s waters.

But the book is not a history lesson or a sermon. It’s an account — occasionally shamelessly emotional because Dempsey believes we should get emotional about the lakes and their impact on our lives and livelihoods — that does what it sets out to do. It asks the questions we all should be thinking about as we consider Michigan’s future.

Recently I spoke with Dempsey about his book and his views on the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Jean Eggemeyer: Why this book now?

Dave Dempsey: Because the Great Lakes are at a historic decision point. And Michigan, as always, will be the state, ultimately, that decides whether the Great Lakes are protected. I’m worried Michigan officials are not aware of what’s at stake and that they’re not making the right decisions.

JE: Is this book aimed at Michigan policymakers?

DD: I think it is to a large extent. Hopefully, people all across the Great Lakes region will find it interesting, but I think Michigan, with its central place in the Great Lakes, is the target audience, at least initially.

JE: Is water protection the most critical environmental issue in the Great Lakes region today?

DD: Oh, absolutely, because it’s not an environmental issue at all — it’s an issue of economic recovery and health. If I were to simplify the book down to one sentence it would be: Michigan’s economic future and its health rest on attracting people to live and work there, as opposed to shipping the water to where people now are.

There are all kinds of people who seem to think Michigan should make a quick buck and sell the water and ship it as far away as markets will bear. But I think a little short-term conservation and prudence will result in the people coming to Michigan and creating the new economy.

JE: You don’t seem to be the biggest fan of the Great Lakes Compact…

DD: I’m not. I think it was based on a faulty premise and is riddled, like Swiss cheese, with holes.

At this point it is symbolically important to move ahead and ratify it while closing the loopholes, because I’m afraid…this is probably the last chance to get the compact through Congress. The votes in Congress are shifting away from the Great Lakes and at some point…as we’ve learned from [New Mexico Governor] Bill Richardson’s comments…there will be a lot of pressure from the West and the South for moving water out there instead of ratifying the compact and letting it stay here. [Richardson, when campaigning for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, called for a national water policy that could allow use of Great Lakes water for arid regions of the country.]

JE: What would you say are the compact’s biggest flaws?

DD: Number one, it creates a double standard. Diversions of water in bottles are lawful, but water in, let’s say, aqueducts or freighters is not, at least not without permission of all the governors. I think it’s a point that could lead to the entire compact being invalidated, because there is absolutely no scientific basis for distinguishing between water shipments based on the size of the container. It’s the total size of the export that should matter.

And the other remaining concern, although Michigan is trying to address it now through legislation, is that there is not enough emphasis on in-state water conservation to show that it’s wrong to export this water from the Great Lakes. States will have to show that they are being very prudent in their use of water.

JE: Do you think the Great Lakes Compact is all that well known by the general public?

DD: No, I don’t think so. If you walk down the street and ask people, “What do you think of the Great Lakes Compact?” people go “Huh?” But if you ask, “Are you for or against shipping water to the Southwest?” you get a much more visceral reaction.

JE: You make the case in Great Lakes for Sale that bottled water is a serious threat today. Do you think there will be an effort to repeal the current Michigan law that allows sales of containers of water 5.7 gallons or less outside the basin, or do you think it’s set in stone once the compact is passed?

DD: The best way to get this issue addressed is for Michigan to exert leadership by ratifying the compact and, at the same time, closing the loopholes. That should set the tone for the other states.

I’m worried that once the compact is ratified people will say, “Well, now we’ve dealt with that issue, let’s move on to the next.”

One point I want to make is that it’s not about bottled water per se. If Michigan passes a statute that basically authorizes limited sales of bottled water but retains the public ownership of all water resources, then I think [the compact] is palatable. It’s just that Michigan should not, without conscious decision, sign away ownership of its water — and that’s what ratifying the compact amounts to…We’re going to allow some people to make ownership claims on the Great Lakes and, once you do that, you begin the process of selling the Great Lakes away.

JE: What’s tomorrow’s biggest threat to the Great Lakes?

DD: Actually, the Great Lakes are facing so many challenges it’s hard to pinpoint the biggest one. But it’s a combination of stresses — climate change, old toxic chemicals that still exist in the lakes and new ones that are blowing in from far away places like Asia. And the fact that water is the oil of the 21st Century. There’s going to be a great clamor across the U.S. and the world for Great Lakes water to slake the thirst of a growing world population.

JE: You write about the public trust doctrine as it relates to water protection. Why isn’t this argument used more often in the fight to preserve the lakes?

DD: In the case of the Great Lakes Compact, it’s because the whole document was drafted based on the advice of lawyers who completely overlooked the public trust doctrine. So the answer to your question really is that there is a schism in the legal community, where some believe the public trust doctrine is sort of a nice…policy statement but is no real binding commitment on how the states protect the water itself…

JE: It was sort of by default based on who was putting together the compact?

DD: I think so, but ideology played a role in it. I’m not saying there is a great conspiracy to sell the Great Lakes, but what’s happened in America over the last 25 years or so is a devaluing of public goods and an emphasis on privatization…so at the time the governors commissioned this legal analysis in 1998…they hired a firm that would advance the idea that supported privatization of water… as opposed to taking a hard line on public ownership.

JE: You’ve been an environmental policymaker and advocate for years. Is it getting easier or harder?

DD: Both. “Environmentalism” as a phrase and as a concept has become not very popular. Conservation is very popular; people in the Great Lakes region will support conservation, but they tend to think of environmentalism as kind of an elitist approach to solving problems and not one they feel comfortable with.

JE: And so would you characterize yourself as a conservationist as opposed to an environmentalist?

DD: Yes, I’ve re-branded myself; I’m now a conservationist.

JE: What do you think the Great Lakes will look like in 50 years?

DD: I am optimistic enough to believe they will look much like they do now.

The purpose of writing books about the stresses on the Great Lakes is not to issue prophesies, but to warn people and enable us to mobilize…There is such a deep love and attachment to the Great Lakes, in Michigan and elsewhere, that people will do the right thing to protect them.

But it can’t be done through apathy; it will have to be done through action and getting people more involved in the issues than they have been.

JE: What can the average Joe or Jane do to preserve the lakes?

DD: They can do things on two levels. One is, clearly, conserve water and, especially, don’t patronize companies that take Michigan water and sell it in far away places.

And the other is what I’ve been saying the last 25 years: you need to get active in communicating with your elected officials. I don’t know how many times…I’ve startled people by saying that I’ve seen 10 letters to a state legislator scare the legislator into doing the right thing. It doesn’t take that much pressure to affect policy, but people enter the game assuming that it’s all controlled by special interests and they have no say — and that’s self-fulfilling.

So I guess the real answer is, break through the cynicism and communicate and make democracy work.

Bookworm Jean B. Eggemeyer is a Lansing-area communications and marketing professional. | E-mail

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