(AP) - A coalition of environmental groups wants to amend a recently enacted Great Lakes water management compact, contending it has loopholes that could enable water grabs by multinational corporations.
The groups kicked off their campaign Sunday in Traverse City, led by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
Their attorney, Jim Olson, said Congress should reword the pact or enact a bill to make clear that water is a publicly owned resource and not a commercial product.
As ratified by the eight Great Lakes states and Congress, he said, the compact opens the door for outsiders to demand access to the region's waters under international trade laws.
If the effort to clarify the pact fails, the coalition will push for stronger water protections under state law or the Michigan Constitution.
"It's a very simple change," Olson said during a public meeting as supporters circulated a petition supporting the revisions. "It's not that hard. We just have to join together to get this done."
Other analysts contend Olson and his allies are misreading the document and no changes are needed.
"We think the compact provides ironclad protections and went as far as we could go without violating international trade agreements," said Marc Smith, state policy director for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.
The compact prohibits, with rare exceptions, taking water from the Great Lakes or its tributaries for use outside the system's natural drainage basin.
“Given the process we just went through, it's very difficult to imagine an effort like that being successful.”David Naftzger, Council of Great Lakes Governors
It requires each state to monitor and regulate large-scale water withdrawals and develop conservation policies.
The prohibition on diversions does not apply to water used in products, such as beverages and foods.
The debate focuses on the definition of "product," which the pact describes in part as something "intended for intermediate or end use consumers."
Olson and other critics fear that provision makes water itself a product, in effect converting it from a public resource to a private commodity.
Others disagree. David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, noted the compact also says water "in its natural state such as in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, aquifers, or water basins is not a product."
The issue was discussed at length as governors of the region's eight states negotiated the compact over more than four years, and later as state legislators debated ratification, Naftzger said. They consulted with experts in water and trade law.
"The overwhelming viewpoint is that it provides adequate protections," he said.
Amending the compact would appear to be a long shot, requiring agreement by the eight legislatures, their governors and Congress.
"Given the process we just went through, it's very difficult to imagine an effort like that being successful," Naftzger said.
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who shares Olson's views and voted against the deal, said last week he might sponsor a joint resolution to express congressional intent that Great Lakes water not be commercialized. It's unlikely that Congress will favor changing the pact, he said.
"Anybody could run a semi-truck through these loopholes," Stupak said. "But I'm among the few members expressing any concern about this."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)