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'The oil of this century'

Experts discuss Great Lakes 'water crisis' at law school

Published: Monday, November 21, 2005

Updated: Monday, February 2, 2009 13:02

Calling the resources of the Great Lakes "the oil of this century," policy makers from the United States and Canada convened with environmental advocates and attorneys on Friday to discuss policies for regulating the use of the region's water supply.

About 100 attorneys, law students and community members were at the fifth annual conference held inside the Law Center Auditorium, listening to policy explanations and critiques from a panel of experts.

One point of contention brought up by Melissa Scanlan, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, was the now-omnipresent appearance of bottled water around the country and the impact on the Great Lakes from bottlers of these products.

"Bottled water is now ubiquitous," Scanlan said. "There's really no end to this [trend]."

In the 1970s, about 300 million gallons of water were used for bottling, according to Scanlan, compared to today's 22.3 billion gallons of water used.

She said she wanted to provide the perspective of the "public interest" and went on to grade recent laws and regulations put in place based on circumstances like bulk export of Great Lakes water.

The Great Lakes Charter Annex, an agreement made between the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the eight Great Lakes states to regulate water use, failed in Scanlan's view with respect to export and diversion of the resource.

"[There] shouldn't be exceptions for bottled water," Scanlan said. "We don't have the laws to catch up with the emerging industry."

Other panelists took a less critical, more explanatory approach.

Dick Bartz of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Kevin Wilson, an Ontario government official, went through the laws' various stages in negotiations and made a point to note the difficulties in reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

Wilson cited Rolling Stones lyrics: "You can't always get what you want … but if you try sometime … you get what you need," as a sort of description of where the discussions have arrived at.

"I think that is exactly where we are today," Wilson said. "I do think we've all come to an agreement that gives all of us what we need."

"How to put all [the two countries involved and tribal nations] together in a cohesive government policy is brutal," said Noah Hall, assistant professor of law at Wayne State University who moderated the final portion of the conference.

All the talk of conservation led one audience member to ask, "Why are we being so stingy?"

Standing before one of the microphones set up in the audience, he said current laws don't do much about the Great Lakes states or provinces wastefulness, but instead over-regulate the use of the resource by the rest of the country.

He said a policy capping total use would make more sense.

Bartz replied by saying, "We want to make sure we're good stewards of the resource," adding that even though the water today is plentiful, only 1 percent of it is renewable.

"Water consumption worldwide is doubling every 20 years," Scanlan said, and the consumption of water now exceeds the population. "When you take water out of the basin, it's gone, and it's altering the ecosystem."

A closer look at ... Water consumption

  • Water consumption worldwide is doubling every 20 years, with the consumption now exceeding the population.
  • Bottled water has been a source of increase in the export of the Great Lakes supply: in the 1970s, about 300 million gallons of water were used for bottling, whereas in 2005, 22.3 billion gallons of water were used.
Information according to Melissa Scanlan of the Midwest Environmental Advocates.

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