What do you do when your hosts are making every effort to serve your needs but they unintentionally test your principles? The correct action isn’t always easy to determine.

When writing the biography of Michigan’s longest-serving governor, William Milliken, I visited his Traverse City house to conduct interviews.  His wife Helen, a major public figure in her own right, offered to make lunch.  When the three of us sat down to eat, I was staring in the face of a BLT —and I was a vegetarian.  I spent a few seconds wondering whether I should advise the Millikens of my dining preferences or just eat the BLT.  I ate it and said nothing.  I was fortunate to be served anything by these two elegant people.

I’ve probably given a hundred speeches or more over the years, generally at the invitation of friendly organizations interested in filling a half hour or hour with information about environmental issues.  In recent years, I’ll get to the podium to find a plastic bottle of water ready to help my words flow.

My first impulse is to flinch.  Because by the time I notice the bottle, I am about to speak to an audience, I can’t privately ask the bottle be removed.  My second impulse is to ponder whether I should make a point in my presentation about the bottle.  But I don’t.  It’s bad manners.

But we need a different set of norms, one in which serving what belongs to the public – water – that is captured by private parties and packaged at an enormous markup in price is considered bad form.  Bottled water sold by private parties is a sneak attack on the Great Lakes and other public waters.

These parties, including large multinational companies, have the resources to package their arguments in pretty containers just like the water.  They’re good for communities, they say, because they create jobs.  And the water they take is privately owned.  After all, they pump it on private property.

That last argument sounds convincing to some on first hearing, but it’s based on antiquated law and understanding of the hydrological cycle.  When somebody pumps water from an aquifer that feeds a creek that feeds a river that feeds the Great Lakes, the Lakes are diminished, however imperceptibly.  In law, however, the diminution is much larger.  The authorities have determined that private parties can sell something that belongs to the people.  Once that decision has been made, government, the trustee of the public interest, has lost control of water ownership.

Courts have clearly defined government’s role as steward of common resources like water.  A Michigan court has called it a “high, solemn, and perpetual trust, which it is the duty of the state to forever maintain.”

This is not a view all environmental groups share.  Regulating the inevitable might best sum up their policy.  Legislating standards companies taking water must follow to protect everything from groundwater flow to fish populations is more sensible than fighting the public ownership issue, in their view.

This is the latest front in the identity crisis in the environmental movement.  It’s as old as the movement itself.  Is it better to negotiate, mitigate and regulate or to hold fast to major principles?  The factions can make strong arguments for each side.

To say that water is life is to affirm the obvious.  None of us can live long without it.  But a characteristic of water is what distinguishes it:  flow.  Water is naturally restless.  It moves.  That’s why it’s a natural highway, useful for humans.  It’s also a reason why it should not be owned.

If a company that is pumping Great Lakes tributary jabbed its pipe into Lake Michigan and took the exact amount it is instead taking from well upstream, the public outcry would be formidable.  The popular imagination understands that Lake Michigan can’t be owned.  Yet Lake Michigan would be a dwarf without its tributaries.  The difference is insubstantial in the physical world, and it should be in the world of policy and law.

If the Great Lakes community and others organized around protection of freshwater resources do not see that this is so – and if it’s not too late already – the most precious substance we know is in danger of being controlled by private parties who exalt profit over protection.  Will we have to pay them not to extract too much water for sale?  Do we even have the funds to satisfy their greed?

In The Living Great Lakes:  Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, author Jerry Dennis wrote, “To appreciate the magnitude of the Great Lakes you must get close to them. Launch a boat on their waters or hike their beaches or climb the dunes, bluffs, and rocky promontories that surround them and you will see, as people have seen since the age of glaciers, that these lakes are pretty damned big. It’s no wonder they’re sometimes upgraded to ‘Inland Seas’ and ‘Sweetwater Seas.’ Calling them lakes is like calling the Rockies hills.”

The question is whether we will allow the Great Lakes to subside to hills.  And that’s why I will be openly refusing bottled water at any future speaking engagements.  Besides, tap water tastes better.