Only public interest can save the Great Lakes as a "public trust."

Environmentalists can't do it alone without widespread unwavering, organized and loud public demand.

The water in the Great Lakes and its ecosystem have long been considered a public trust, owned by the public and managed by our governments "for the benefit" of the public.

We cannot take this doctrine for granted, however. As the world grows drier and thirstier, powerful water-bottling giants are poised, ever ready to send our water to market.

Two things currently threaten the long-standing public trust doctrine in state water laws. One is a loophole negotiated into an appellate court ruling that allowed the Nestle bottling plant in Mecosta County to export water outside the Great Lakes basin for the first time.

Another threat is buried in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Compact, signed last year that allows unlimited amounts of water to leave the basin as long as it is held in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons. Critics say this could lead to legislation treating Great Lakes water as a "product" subject to international trade laws.

Both loopholes are unacceptable. Judges, governors, state legislators need to hear that.

The public trust doctrine must remain the strong heart of all state water laws. It is crucial to the very life of the Great Lakes, its tributaries, aquifers and basin residents.

Water should not be considered as the "new oil." Like air, it is essential to life.

The Great Lakes are an environmental disaster after decades of dawdling discussions and toothless solutions have allowed armies of invasive species to gobble up food sources of native fish. The results: Algae blooms contaminated with Type E botulism, bird die-offs, E. coli, debris-strewn beaches, polluted sand and beach water.

It seems odd. Michigan sits in the middle of the Great Lakes ecosystem, which contains 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. Forty percent of the state is covered by surface water. It has 11,000 inland lakes, more than 56,000 miles of rivers and stream.

You'd think we'd all be better stewards. We have so much to lose. We've lost so much already.

Hope rises, however. Public understanding, dismay and activism appear to be growing. The evidence:

n President Obama's investment of $475 million in his fiscal year 2010 budget to restore the Great Lakes by targeting runoff pollution, degraded wildlife habitat and contaminated sediment.

n U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak's introduction of a resolution clarifying that Congress expressly prohibited Great Lakes water from being sold, diverted or exported outside of the Great Lakes basin when it ratified the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Compact last fall.

n The advocacy of Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, and environmental historian and policy analyst Dave Dempsey on diversion politics.

n Concerned citizens who formed the Benzie County Water Council to persuade county and local governments to adopt a resolution that ensures local water systems in northwest Michigan will be subject to the public trust doctrine. It's been adopted, so far, by Benzie County commissioners, Gilmore Township, Frankfort and Elberta. The Grand Traverse Area League of Women Voters also endorsed it.

n State Attorney General Mike Cox's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to force it to put some teeth in its ballast water regulations.

n Public education efforts, books and documentaries that clearly explain the many threats to the Great Lakes and high cost of inaction.

These efforts represent a good start, but there is more to be done. The Great Lakes need everyone's attention.

Trending Video

Recommended for you