What the Great Lakes Compact Means for Bottled Water

Legislation will place no restriction on bottled water companies.


Corrected 9/25/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Public Trust Doctrine was excluded from the compact. The version also incorrectly stated that 1 percent of the lakes’ water became bottled water. The article neglected to mention that states have the ability to regulate bottled water independently.

Yesterday, Congress ratified the Great Lakes Compact, which prevents the diversion of fresh water from the lakes by any state that does not immediately border them. The bill is supposed to protect the largest source of fresh water in the country (90 percent of America's fresh water and 20 percent of the world's) and also to encourage other states to conserve water. President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

It sounds good—but there's a catch. A loophole in the bill waives the diversion ban for any container less than 5.7 gallons. That means that the bottled water industry is off the hook (from the compact, at least—states still have the ability to independently regulate bottled water coming from their shores) and will have no restrictions on the amount of water it repackages in bottles made with oil and then resells at thousands of times the water's value. This article from National Geographic Kids paints a clear picture: Envision a water bottle filled a quarter of the way up with oil. That's how much oil was needed to produce the bottle containing something you can get for next to nothing in the tap. However, when it comes to bottled beverages, water is at least a healthful choice.

There's no limit to how much water private bottlers can take, so environmental lawyers have warned that the compact paves the way for the "privatization" of our water sources. The compact refers to the water as a "product."

"As long as the water is considered a product, it establishes a precedent that water can be grabbed by profit-hungry corporations who want to claim it is a product not subject to the compact," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch. "This undermines the very purpose of the compact and creates a dangerous precedent for exporting water in the United States, in this instance from the largest body of fresh water in North America."

At the same time, proponents of the bill say that bottled water takes away only a negligible amount of the lakes' water. They also say that there are plenty of good things in the bill to make up for the effects of allowing water bottlers access to the lakes.

"I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. This compact does far more good than this one provision does bad," said Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "It doesn't create a loophole. It simply gives states the ability to manage water the way they see fit. If a state wants to ban bottled water, they can do that.... There aren't enough bottles in the world to send out water in the quantities we'd worry about."