Dempsey: Great Lakes Compact ‘2.0’ necessary to protect against water commodification

By: - February 3, 2022 5:21 am

Lake Michigan off M-22 | Susan J. Demas

Scientists predict that by 2050, Michigan will be the safest state in the country to escape from increasingly severe effects of climate change.

According to Dave Dempsey, that may not be such good news for the Great Lakes State itself.

“If you turn the Great Lakes into a product, you’re going to, in essence, begin draining the Great Lakes for the Southwest or other areas that are climate impacted,” Dempsey said.

Dave Dempsey

With a keen eye on water scarcity, climate change and the increasing pace of water commodification as it pertains to Michigan and its five lakes, Dempsey has emerged from a 30-year career as perhaps the most well-known figure in Michigan’s realm of environmental policy.

From an environmental advisor to Democratic former Gov. James Blanchard to a leader in many environmental groups including the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), and now For Love of Water (FLOW) — where Dempsey has now settled in as senior advisor — the Traverse City resident has decades of experience focusing on the Great Lakes.

Last week, the Advance caught up with Dempsey to speak about his outlook now on issues facing Michigan in the wake of releasing an updated version of his 2008 book, “Great Lakes for Sale.”

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Out of all the things that you’ve worked on environmentally, what issue sticks out the most to you?

Dempsey: I entered the scene roughly the time when the Great Lakes kind of moved to the forefront of environmental policy. So all the things that relate to the Great Lakes. And then the other, the other category of issues that’s taken up most of my much of my time is chemical policy and toxic chemicals. It seems like half my career has been spent in alphabet soup, you know, DDT and PCBs [and] PFAS. Those are the two big ones.

Michigan Advance: Following up on some of the things you started to speak about during the [Jan. 21] MEC seminar — you talked about the Great Lakes Compact. Could you expand on how perhaps that is not completely a firewall for protecting the Great Lakes?

Dempsey: There are two gaps in it. One is that it actually set up a process to allow diversions within Great Lakes states, which we’ve never had before back at this time. The other way is it created a loophole for water being sold as a product in smaller containers. That was not part of our policy, our law before.

Michigan Advance: Have both of those loopholes been utilized?

Dempsey: Yes, Wisconsin has been the big user of the diversion tool within the Great Lakes states. They’ve had four new or increased diversions and they’re considering a fifth. These are all within Wisconsin, they’re not diversions that go out of state. But then there’s obviously Nestlé and a few other companies have been using the bottled water exemption to take water out of the ground … both inside and outside the Great Lakes Basin. So those are two gaps I think need to be addressed in a new version of the Compact. Compact 2.0.

Water is the source of life. You really don't want people making the source of life a product.

– Dave Dempsey

Michigan Advance: Do you think that more people should see that for what it is; an issue of commodifying water from the Great Lakes?

Dempsey: People will say the amount or the percentage of Great Lakes water that is captured by Nestlé and other bottled water companies and shipped out of the basin is noticeably small. And it is quite small, but the real issue is control of the water and ownership. To the extent that we authorize or allow companies like Blue Triton [formerly Nestlé] to take water and sell it, we’re creating a likelihood that Great Lakes water will increasingly be perceived as a market commodity instead of a human right. That’s the worry.

Michigan Advance: Have you seen that happen more and more over the years? Do you think this is an increasing risk?

Dempsey: I think it is for two reasons. One is that we’re sort of getting numb to it. [Companies like] Blue Triton have been extracting water now for almost 20 years. People have kind of gotten used to it, instead of reacting with outrage, as they did back when it started.

But the bigger issue, bigger trend is global, and that is that water is now being perceived as a commodity that can be traded on the markets. And that creates some danger. I mean, there’s a moral issue with that, because water is the source of life. You really don’t want people making the source of life a product. But there’s also the control issue; if you create markets in water as a commodity, you are running the risk of allowing investors, hedge funds and so forth to have more impact on water supplies and water, control of water use.

Aquria Sisk, 15, at water celebration on Stephenson Island, Wisc., July 16, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Michigan Advance: To break it down even further, why do you think that’s a risk?

Dempsey: It relates to who decides how water is managed. The analogy that I would use is, at least theoretically, obviously not in reality, but theoretically we’ve taken the right to vote from white males with property to theoretically everybody, every citizen, and if we were to allow private investors to take control of water, it’s like turning the boat back to white male property owners. Because it’s a smaller class of people that will have control of water policy. So it’s a matter of control and public access to decision making.

Michigan Advance: Michigan has been deemed the safest place to escape from the effects of climate change. That’s great, but could that also be harmful for Michigan if we’re going to have people coming in and seeing the Great Lakes as potentially their last chance once the climate crisis really starts ramping up?

Dempsey: It could. I mean, it provides all the more reason for us to conserve water now as well as in the future so that we don’t run the Great Lakes levels way down. It also argues against selling water, because if you turn the Great Lakes into a product, you’re going to, in essence, begin draining the Great Lakes for the Southwest or other areas that are climate impacted. 

So it’s a danger, and we are going to see more and more pressure on the Great Lakes’ climate as climate change accelerates. Twenty years ago, we thought it would mean the lakes would dry up. Now we know it probably means much higher, then lower levels, kind of fluctuating very quickly. People say well, we have high water levels, they’re surplus to sell, but … if we were selling water to get rid of a surplus, we would end up having a deficit of water over a period. So that’s another reason not to make it into a product.

Michigan Advance: Another point I thought was interesting that you brought up at the MEC seminar was the commodification of groundwater versus surface water. Because when people think of the Great Lakes, they do just think of surface water. You mentioned the importance of thinking more about the groundwater as well. Could you talk a bit more about that?

Dempsey: You know, groundwater and surface water are connected. Groundwater feeds our rivers and our Great Lakes. About 25% of the volume of the Great Lakes starts out as groundwater and flows into the lakes. So they’re interconnected, and it’s also an abundant resource. There’s enough groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin to equal what we call a “sixth Great Lake.” The groundwater volume in the Great Lakes Basin is equal to the volume of Lake Huron. Obviously it’s not underwater lakes, but the volume is comparable. 

So we have a lot, but we’ve polluted a lot of it, too. So it’s not, in many cases, available for use. An example of how groundwater is important to Michigan is the Au Sable River. It depends on cool clean groundwater flowing into the Au Sable cool-water fisheries. And 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from the groundwater, so it’s important for that.

To the extent that we authorize or allow companies like Blue Triton to take water and sell it, we're creating a likelihood that Great Lakes water will increasingly be perceived as a market commodity instead of a human right.

– Dave Dempsey

Michigan Advance: In terms of protecting the Great Lakes, you briefly mentioned Canada and its involvement. Could you frame how Canada is involved in protecting the Great Lakes and whether you think they should be more involved?

Dempsey: Oh, yes, they should be more involved. I think they want to be more involved, but our legal structures don’t make it very easy. The major, major involvement that they have of any significance, legally, is through the International Joint Commission, which is a U.S.-Canadian commission. They don’t have any regulatory power, but they’re kind of a watchdog on Great Lakes policy and practices. 

… But again, there’s no authority there. It’s a study and report institution. But in terms of the compact, as an example, they are not a voting member, because Congress has basically forbidden the Great Lakes states from engaging them in that way, under the grounds that it’s foreign policy. And that we should be in charge of that. But we have to figure out a mechanism for Canadians to have equal say, because they have an equal role in the Great Lakes. They border four of the five lakes like Michigan, and they do have a huge stake in what happens to the Great Lakes.

Michigan Advance: How do you think that their further involvement would help things?

Dempsey: I think it would provide another perspective that is valuable. I think it would essentially mean more holistic decision making and more conservative decision making. And the Canadians would be less inclined to support new diversions to Great Lakes states, and would be very concerned about the sale of water. I think that’s why we need to have more protective policy management with the Canadians.

Michigan Advance: Speaking of Canada, I wanted to see if you had a take on the fight over Line 5 and how it relates to the protection of the Great Lakes.

Dempsey: I think it’s a major threat. I think Enbridge has been very cagey about using both the political and legal process to stave off shutdown of the pipeline, probably using the tunnel as a ruse, really, to allow them to [keep operating] the pipeline. I mean, I don’t think the tunnel is ever going to get built. I think it’s a red herring, really.

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Michigan Advance: A big thing emphasized by Indigenous people in Michigan, Minnesota and elsewhere is the saying that “water is life” and this very foundational idea that water is a human right, is the source of all human life and should be protected as such. Do you think more people should adopt this way of thinking?

Dempsey: I do. … I think it’s a very clear moral necessity, but it’s not necessarily clear to the public. Maybe that’s why only one state, California, has declared it a human right. The water shutoffs in Detroit and some suburbs have really underscored the need for declaring water a human right in Michigan. You really can’t function without clean water in your life. We need to come up with policies that shut off moratoriums and hopefully create funding sources that assure that water service can continue.

Michigan Advance: You worked with the Blanchard administration. From your perspective, how does this [Whitmer] administration stack up to past administrations you’ve seen throughout your career in terms of environmental policy?

Dempsey: I think they’re the best and the last since the turn of the century, so 20 years. I think Whitmer’s been very good. Obviously, I would like the environment to be No. 1 on the agenda, but I recognize there are other priority issues. She’s done a lot in terms of PFAS, drinking water standards and some Great Lakes initiatives and climate initiatives. I think the greatest governor in Michigan’s history on the environment was [William] Milliken. I wrote his biography years ago, and environment was one of his two or three top issues. But I would say in the last [three] governors, Whitmer is probably the best on the environment.

Michigan Advance: Besides water commodification, the water bottled industry, what is your biggest fear for the Great Lakes?

Dempsey: That’s a great question. Climate change is the overarching issue of our time. It’s a big threat because we don’t really understand its impacts on the Great Lakes yet. But the more imminent problem is, I think, chemicals and microplastics. We’re all carrying burdens of both in our bodies, and we really don’t know what that impact’s going to be on our health. So I’m most worried about that in the short term.

Michigan Advance: And then climate change in the long-term?

Dempsey: Right.

Disclosure: Dempsey has been a periodic contributor to the Advance’s opinion page and was not paid.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.