For environmentalists and economists, Great Lakes awash in opportunity

TRAVERSE CITY – How do you "brand" water? If anyone has an answer to that question, its journalist and Traverse City native, J. Carl Ganter. Ganter is the executive director of an ambitious international non-profit, Circle of Blue, addressing the dangers – and opportunities – lapping at the issue of fresh water conservation. As environmental matters go, branding is how Ganter plans to make water the next global warming. Or, at least on par with that issue in the public consciousness.

"More than half the states in this country will be facing water shortages in the next five years," said Ganter. "One-third of the global population doesn't have adequate access to clean drinking water. It's not all negative, however. There are huge economic opportunities. Huge."

Those opportunities include the design, manufacture, retailing, and installation of water-saving devices for residential and commercial use, as well as the development of "green" well-drilling technologies, irrigation systems, and new methods of water filtration. The demand for such technologies is expected to rise, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, and at least one local water company agrees.

"There's no question about it, water conservation will someday be mandated, ushering in a number of business opportunities," said William Siegmund, CEO of Traverse City-based Pure Water Works, Inc. "In many parts of the world, collection of rainwater is your main source of water and here in the U.S. we can learn from that."

Siegmund, a fifth-degree certified water specialist, just returned from the International Water Quality show in LasVegas where he learned about new water-related technologies such as nanotechnology and scale filters that function without salt or electricity.

This economic component is an important part of the water conservation brand, and one way Ganter said an aspiring non-profit such as Circle of Blue can remain relevant across social and political lines.

"Major companies are coming to us asking, 'Where's the next crisis?' When we started putting dollars on it, that's when we got the attention of corporate America."

Spend a little time with Ganter and it's apparent that calling him "executive director" of the Traverse City-based group is like calling Renaissance man and adventurer Richard Branson a music executive. The characterization would be accurate, but limiting. Besides serving as Circle of Blue's chief, Ganter is also development director, spokesman, data analyst, recruiter, travel agent, and strategic relations arm-twister.

"I've approached putting Circle of Blue together the same way I approach a magazine piece," said Ganter. "I like to roll up my sleeves and get into a story."

In that case, his sleeves must be soaked. Gaining purchase in the minds of the modern public now saturated by the Iraq War, a challenging economy, a presidential campaign season, and global warming is not a walk on the beach. Ganter's resolve to succeed, however, is grounded in terra firma.

After college, Ganter became a sought-after journalist, covering the AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia for Time and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa for MSNBC. He has contacts all over the world, and has secured a number of respected allies for Circle of Blue, including the Pacific Institute,, Business for Social Responsibility, the Woodrow Wilson International Center, as well as journalists from Time, Newsweek and National Geographic, to name a few. He is, however, in a hurry. Time the news magazine might be an ally, but time, the noun, is not.

"We have this small window to do something meaningful," Ganter said. "It's a rare time in history when we can glimpse the future and have the knowledge to shape it."

Why should a banker care about water? Or, for that matter, an auto mechanic, doctor, electrician, or someone who works in the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant? Three words: supply and demand. Obviously water is something every business needs in varying degrees, and as it becomes scarcer, it will also become more expensive to access.

Which brings us, of course, to the money. Circle of Blue has an ambitious three-step plan to study water quality issues in 20 countries; set up a newsroom in Traverse City staffed with veteran journalists to cover water-related news stories; and connect with scientists to make their data more widely available. The price tag? Twenty-five million dollars. You want to make a splash, you have to spend some cash.

Which is Ganter's current challenge, since Circle of Blue is on the crest of the water wave, where the new ideas are, and not down in the swell where the money is. Start-up funding for Circle of Blue was secured by Ganter from the Ford Foundation, the Coca-Cola Company, the Catto Charitable Foundation, and several family foundations. Despite the success of Circle of Blue's early initiatives, such as a report on water issues in Inner Mongolia, the launch of Water News, an online news desk, and scoring a sought-after speaker's slot at the Clinton Global Initiative, operating capital has been harder to come by.

Still, Ganter is full of optimism: "(The) world's eyes are on the Great Lakes, the lifeblood for thirty-five million people. Billions of dollars of investment must be made to clean up and preserve the largest freshwater system on the planet, and these investments must be made wisely and transparently."

And, advice: "If you're an investor, learn about opportunities to finance clean-up and new technologies; if you're a policy-maker, understand water's impact and lead your community with a global perspective and local appreciation for it. If you're a business owner or citizen, be part of the process and learn how water affects you." BN

New study:Great Lakes' beauty worth billions

When they look at the light reflecting off the surface of Grand Traverse Bay, some people see natural beauty and others see dollar signs. According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, they're both right; what's good for fish, birds and aquatic plants is also good for business.

"(T)he best available estimates of the various individual benefits of the Great Lakes Restoration Strategy . . . could reach as high as $50 billion," according to John Austin, a Brookings Institution fellow and one of the authors of the report.

The report, issued in April, confirmed that cleaning polluted lakes would generate additional tourism, fishing, and recreation revenues, while saving money by reducing the cost to city water departments of treating drinking water. Technology developed to complete the cleanup could also provide new jobs. The report even cited the value of "unquantifiable benefits" – a term economists use to describe things like the taste of fresh bluegill or the feeling of sand on bare feet.

One method of protecting this resource is the Great Lakes Compact, a water management agreement that gives governors of all eight Great Lakes states the power to veto any plan to divert water to other regions of the country. The Compact was signed in 2005 by the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as two Canadian provinces. Four state legislatures have since approved it. In Michigan, legislation implementing the Compact passed the House and Senate on May 14. The legislation, however, didn't act on more contentious parts, like SB 860, which would adopt a controversial tool for assessing water withdrawals.

"The most compelling reason for the Compact is to implement the ban on diversions of water out of the Great Lakes Basin," said Traverse City attorney Jim Olson, an expert on the legalities of natural resource issues. "The most compelling reason against it…is that the Compact definition of 'diversion' exempts 'products' which includes water sold as a product in any-sized container; that spells a risk of commercial exports without limit."

The Compact defines the treatment of water in containers more than 5.7 gallons as a diversion, Olson said, but ignores smaller-sized containers, making it problematic and possibly precedent setting when it comes to enforcing the 5.7 gallon limit.

In order for the Compact to be made federal law, it would still need to be approved by the U.S. Congress. BN