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LAKE ERIE – Water Bill to Protect Public Wealth: Banning Phosphorous

December 14, 2009

Scripps introduces bill to clarify that water is part of public trust

Legislation would ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer and restore the rights of citizens to sue on environmental grounds

By Eartha Jane Melzer 8/18/09 11:01 AM // Digg Tweet Published by The Michigan Messenger & Disseminated by The Erie Wire

walloon lake

TRAVERSE CITY — Amid a global scarcity of clean drinking water, private corporations have seized control of much of the world’s water supply, but in Northern Michigan a politically connected grassroots movement is galvanizing around an alternative, more traditional, view of water — that it should be held in public trust for the benefit of all.

Monday night, water activists hosted a screening of the documentary film “Blue Gold: World Water Wars,” and a panel discussion with Terry Swier, president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, attorney Jim Olson, who represented that group in a nine-year long fight against water pumping by the Nestle Corp., and State Rep. Dan Scripps, a Democrat from Leland who was elected last fall in a traditionally Republican district with a campaign heavily focused on water conservation.

Speaking from the stage of the Traverse City Opera House, Scripps said that he is putting the “finishing touches” on a bill that will reaffirm that water is part of the public trust. Michigan law has historically recognized that water should be held in trust for the common good.

Scripps said that his legislation would also ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer, restore funding to the state program that cleans up leaking underground storage tanks, eliminate the Freedom of Information Act exemptions for large scale water withdrawals, and restore citizen standing under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act so that all citizens can sue to stop environmental damage.

Phosphorus run-off has led to harmful algae blooms in Michigan waterways. Several states and some local areas have already banned phosphorus-containing fertilizer.

Underground storage tanks are leaching gasoline and other contaminants into the groundwater at thousands of sites around the state, yet the Department of Environmental Quality has been unable to address the sites because funding intended for this purpose has been diverted into other programs.

Restrictions on information about water withdrawals makes it difficult for citizens to know how water is being used.

In 2007 in the case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation v. Nestle the Michigan Supreme Court struck down part of the state environmental law that gives citizens standing to sue over environmental threats statewide. This ruling was a critical blow for public environmental rights.

Scripps said that he expects to introduce the bill before the end of the month and characterized the water package as a non-partisan issue.

When public trust language came up in the Republican-controlled Senate last year as part of the ratification of the Great Lakes water compact, he said, it came within one vote of passage.

(Neither of the term-limited Republican senators from northwest Michigan — Jason Allen of Traverse City and Michelle McManus of Lake Leelanau — supported adding public trust language to the compact.)

The Great Lakes Compact, enacted last year, is a regional water treaty intended to stop diversions out of the basin. Though its ratification was seen as a conservation victory by some, others worry that the pact actually sets the stage for wider commercialization of water by allowing it to be treated as a commodity. Bottled water, for example, under the Compact, may be freely shipped out of basin.

In July, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee introduced a resolution, H.R. 551, that affirms that the Great Lakes Water Compact did not intend to treat water as a commodity.

Jim Olson said that Michigan’s efforts to affirm public ownership of water on the state and federal level are being closely watched and supported by national and international groups that recognize the importance of Michigan water policy to the global struggle to define access to water as a human right.

Michigan is surrounded by nearly 20 percent of the world’s freshwater and the fight to maintain its public trust doctrine is seen as a key battle in the international struggle against water privatization.

Olson urged the crowd to prepare to support Scripps’ legislation.

“We need 10,000 fans of water,” he said. “Dan and his colleagues should be flooded with support.”

Note: If you are having problems with the audio, try using headphones.

Breann Hohman from the Erie Soil and Water Conservation District teaches a group at Old Woman’s Creek about rain barrel construction and rainwater harvesting. For more information: call 419-626-5211.

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