War correspondent

Apr 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

How Great Lakes water is managed, protected and distributed might well prove to be the North American environmental issue of the 21st century, not only for the 40 million Canadians and Americans who live in the lakes' basin, but for other areas of the countries, where growing populations are leading to water shortages. In his book Great Lakes Water Wars, published in 2006, Peter Annin chronicles the sometimes highly contentious history of water policy in the Midwest and the forging of a new binational agreement to manage diversion from the lakes and their tributaries. That agreement, known as the Compact, prescribes some water policy for the eight states, while its sister covenant, the International Agreement, does the same for the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Both would need to be passed by each state or province and then the Compact would need congressional approval to be enacted. Neither country has ratified the pacts, and they continue to be debated by politicians, industry and environmentalists, keeping Annin's book timely, and its author in demand as a speaker. A former Chicago-based correspondent for Newsweek, Annin turned to full-time environmental advocacy in 2000 when he joined the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, of which he's associate director.

We caught up last week with Annin, who lives in Madison, Wis., as he spoke at Wayne State University's annual Wayne-Windsor Canadian Studies Symposium, "Whose Great Lakes? The Politics of Water."

METRO TIMES: Are audiences in the Midwest becoming more familiar with issues like water diversion, pollution and conservation?

PETER ANNIN: A lot of water scarcity news lately has elevated water generally as a topic nationally and internationally, whether you're talking about drought in the Southeast, the Atlanta metropolitan area, the perennial water scarcity issues in the American southwest or news about Africa or the Middle East or particularly Asia.

MT: So we don't have those crises. What do we get for water news?

ANNIN: I think a lot of the coverage about Great Lakes water is very local, just about "my" circulation area or just about "my" state or just about "my" lake. In fact, we're talking about a five-lake system that touches eight states, two Canadian provinces, two countries and is a globally significant resource, as the lakes have 18 percent of the world's fresh water supply. I think that some of the journalistic coverage about water issues in the Great Lakes fails to regularly remind people that this is an internationally significant resource and people around the world, children in schools around the world, learn about the Great Lakes just like we learn about the Himalayas or the Sahara or these other internationally renowned ecosystems.

MT: Why is this process so difficult?

ANNIN: The Compact and Agreement negotiations were quite extraordinary in their length, in the number of people that were involved and the number of jurisdictions that were involved. You had representatives from all the states and provinces and the discussions went on for years and years until it was signed in 2005. The discussions were often behind the scenes and not very thoroughly covered by the media. And it was complicated. You're talking about francophone culture in Quebec, different international issues between the two countries, international treaty issues, different tribal issues, different personalities of the different states and provinces. From a geopolitical perspective, it was an extraordinary example of multijurisdictional cooperation in pursuit of a greater good, which was sustainable management of water in an international waterway.

MT: What are the prospects for the two agreements?

ANNIN: It's by no means a done deal. Only 50 percent of the states have adopted the Compact and only one of the two provinces have adopted the International Agreement. The easy ones are done and the hard ones are left. All it takes is one state to not adopt the Compact and then it fails.

MT: Michigan is the only state where the Compact has not passed either the House or the Legislature. How much of a concern is that?

ANNIN: I do not believe that Michigan will be the last state to adopt the Compact. One of the reasons things are taking a little longer in Michigan than some people expected is that Michigan is not just adopting the Compact, they're revisiting their water law and systems of permitting that were revised just a couple years ago. They're thinking more broadly and with a forward-looking prism and that's good. It takes longer, but I think it's an admirable way to go.

MT: What happens if the state legislatures and Congress don't adopt the Compact?

ANNIN: The fear is that eventually someone will challenge the current U.S. federal law that protects the lakes from diversions, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). That law is widely believed to be unconstitutional — in other words, the only reason it protects the lakes is because no one has challenged it — a water paper tiger, if you will. If WRDA falls to a legal challenge, then there would be no federal law in place that could stop a large-scale, long-range Great Lakes water diversion proposal, hence the desire to adopt the Compact.

MT: Has all of this uncertainty helped your book sales?

ANNIN: It's in its fifth printing and that's a little bit surprising for a book that's environmental nonfiction. But there are a couple reasons for it. There are a heck of a lot of people interested in the Great Lakes region who feel very strongly about the Great Lakes, and they identify personally with the ecosystem and these waters. The Compact being in the news has generated interest in a confusing topic. My book is really designed to be an objective source that people can reach for if they want to learn more about Great Lakes water issues. I'd also like to personally thank Gov. Bill Richardson from New Mexico for his comments earlier this year, saying that states like Wisconsin are "awash" in water, that the country should be considering a national water policy, implying, of course that the Great Lakes and other water-rich areas might want to look at sharing their water with more parched areas of the country. That, I'm sure, has helped my book.

MT: What's your personal history with the Great Lakes region?

ANNIN: I grew up spending my vacations in the woods of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That's where I go to commune with the Great Lakes. I also shoot over to Lake Michigan and Lake Superior's Wisconsin frontage as well. I'm a paddler, a backpacker, a wilderness camper and all-around outdoorsy kind of guy.

MT: Do you practice what you preach, so to speak, about water management?

ANNIN: When we moved into our house we had leaky faucets and toilets where water leaked into the bowl and wasted water. We fixed that. When the dishwasher died, we made sure we bought a water-efficient model. When the washing machine died, we made sure we bought a water-efficient model. We put in low-flow toilets and low-flow showerheads. And we talk about it. When somebody is in the shower too long, they get ribbed by other people.

MT: Has it made a difference?

ANNIN: When I was writing the book, I got a call from the water utility. They said they were sending an engineer out because they thought our meter had a problem because we'd had a big drop in water usage in the last year. I said we'd been doing a lot of conservation and changing our habits. She said there was no way it could have had the effect it did. The engineer came out and checked the meter and everything was fine. Whatever we were doing was right and helping out.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]