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Great Lakes Article:

Troubled Water
Toronto Sun
May 23, 2009

Thirty years ago, newspaper headlines declared Lake Erie "dead."

It was the kind of news that shocked us into action.

Forty areas of concern, were identified around the Great Lakes. These were chronically polluted areas in need of immediate clean up.

In the three decades since those headlines appeared, only two of the sites on the Canadian side of the border have been delisted.

We drink from our lakes. We fish in them. Sometimes we swim in them. There is incredible pressure on us to divert water to our thirsty neighbours to our south.

How are we faring as stewards of 20% of the world's freshwater?

It may become more valuable than oil in the future.

Pure, clean water.

We have it. The world thirsts for it.

Earth's largest inland body of water -- the Great Lakes -- is on our doorstep.

With the U.S., we are joint stewards of 20% of the world's total freshwater. It is the second largest economic engine in the world -- after the U.S. and before Japan.

So how well are we doing as stewards of this irreplaceable resource?

It sometimes seems we take it all for granted.

The International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes was created as an arm's length agency of government to implement the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

The chairman of the Canadian section is Herb Grey. He explains there is a special agreement between the two governments dating to the 1970s.

"There was a great deal of concern about the pollution in the Great Lakes," Grey says.

"Rivers were catching fire because of pollution, and this led to an agreement being negotiated between the two governments."

That agreement hasn't been updated since 1986, and it's time to go back to the table, Grey believes.

"The two countries need to sit down and carry on a negotiation, and this hasn't happened," he says.

Grey has high hopes U.S. President Barack Obama will take a greater interest in Great Lakes issues than predecessor, George Bush.

There are even some who hope the new president may attend celebrations of the International Joint Commission (IJC) centennial that will take place in Niagara Falls in June.

"We note that President Obama is from a major city on the shores of one of the Great Lakes -- Lake Michigan, so he would personally be aware of a lot of these issues," Grey said.

Grey has met Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and says he took an interest in Great Lakes clean-up.

"The Harper government has spoken about giving more attention to the Great Lakes. But a basic step is to finish the revision and updating of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and this is not something that requires us to have to sit down and negotiate," Grey says.

As parts of the U.S. south and Midwest dry up, there has been increasing pressure on governments to divert water from the Great Lakes.

Ontario's Environment Commissioner, Gord Miller, says the vast Ogalla Aquifer, which irigates parts of eight states from Nebraska to Texas, is drying up.

"You can see how much it has gone down. It is in dire straits," Miller says.

About 27% of the irrigated land in the United States sits on this aquifer. It yields about 30% U.S. ground water used for irrigation. In addition, the aquifer system provides drinking water to 82% of the people who live within its boundary.

While a new U.S.-Canada treaty prohibiting massive diversion of water to the Midwest was signed by Bush last October, Miller says there was huge pressure on the former U.S. president from Texas to open the Great Lakes water gates to send northern water south.

"It is encouraging to have a president not only from Illinois, but from the Chicago area, where the consciousness of the Great Lakes is the greatest," Miller said.

"There is no question political power has shifted to California and the southwest, all of which are dry and have water crises," Miller said.

Water levels in the lakes are dropping, too.

Miller says as a result of climate change, the upper Great Lakes don't freeze for as long as they once did.

"You get the winds blowing over. There is a lot of evaporation and that pulls the snow up north of Barrie.

"There is a lot of lake effect snow, a lot of evaporation. That's why the water level drops," he says.

There are also other theories about why lake levels are dropping, Miller reports.

"The Georgian Bay Association commissioned a report some years ago that looked at water levels in Lake Huron," he said.

"They have suggested that there was overzealous dredging in the St. Clair River."

Lower water levels are a problem not just for recreational sailors. It's also reducing the amount of goods lake freighters can carry.

"The real business application is that the lakers have to cut tonnage, because they don't have enough draft," Miller says.

"They are 25% underloaded in the really bad years -- and that represents a lot of money."

There are high hopes the lakes can be used as a water superhighway, as a safer, more environmentally friendly way of carrying goods than our overcrowded highways.

Still, there are drawbacks to this, Miller points out.

There is a huge tax on new ships in the Great Lakes.

"If you want to bring a new ship on the Great Lakes, there is a 25% tariff. That's a real deterrent for any shipping company that wants to bring a new ship into the Great Lakes," he said.

With few shipyards left building ships on the Great Lakes, most new freighters have to be brought in from overseas -- and pay the tariff.


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