GRAND RAPIDS — When he learned that Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus said “thirsty Washington politicians” were a bigger threat to the Great Lakes than directional drilling, Tom Leonard laughed and quickly agreed.
Posthumus made his comment a few weeks ago after the Senate passed its version of a bill that bans new leases for oil drilling under the Great Lakes.
The lieutenant governor praised both chambers for the bipartisan effort to create the ban, something he called for during the summer of 2000.
As executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Leonard felt the ban would keep the character of the shoreline intact and help protect the investments that have been made in the lakeshore’s recreational and residential uses.
“These are very substantial and we’re not making any more shoreline. So it made lots of sense to say this is where economically, as well as environmentally, we like to come down on the side of these kinds of uses,” he said. “I think we will have a shot at a less industrialized lakeshore because of this.”
When Posthumus pointed to the thirsty Washington politicians, he alluded to efforts by some in the nation’s capital to divert water from the Great Lakes to more arid sections of the nation, like the southwest. Leonard said that threat is real and ongoing, and the drilling ban showed the rest of the country that Michigan is serious about protecting its lakeshore and keeping its water clean and here.
“I think Posthumus’ statement is really correct, in so far as it goes,” he said. “I don’t think directional drilling is absolutely the worst thing we face. I think probably the worst thing we face is to give the impression to the rest of the world that we are not being careful conservators of Great Lakes water.
“If we don’t make it clear that we are concerned about where our water is used and how it is used, who uses it for what, and all of these kinds of questions, then we are going to lose control of it. Then the federal government will step into that leadership vacuum because there are people out there who would like to put the water to other uses.”
One potential use that irks WMEAC is the attempt from the Perrier Group of America to mine up to 260 million gallons of spring water from Mecosta County annually for its bottling business. A decision from the courts is expected in June on whether Perrier can proceed.
Another issue that has WMEAC’s attention is an effort by Laketown Township to build a water supply station near the Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Leonard said the facility would be built on land that was initially intended for the park until the state sold the property to the township for less than its market value, and that the township would sell water throughout Allegan County. He added the station would also provide water to Holland, which is running near low capacity because it is selling water to the new power plant being built in Zeeland.
“It’s an issue that connects up with this whole issue of water supply and sewage disposal in these growing communities along the Michigan west coast,” said Leonard. “It’s clearly an economic issue for people that live in the Saugatuck area because of the park and that it’s a part of the ambiance of the area.
“We are concerned and are just pointing out that the long-term economic interests and the long-term environmental interests once again coincide here, in terms that really require protection of the park property and park atmosphere.”
The House and Senate have to work out their differences on the drilling ban and the resulting bill has to be signed before it becomes law. WMEAC sees the upcoming law as a win for their side, having joined about a half-dozen other groups in pushing for the ban.
“I don’t think that we are going to take it absolutely for granted, but I think it is pretty clear that this is a victory,” said Leonard. “And I think that we will continue to work with other environmental organizations, as we have, and probably try to build on this victory for future issues.”