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Great Lakes Article:

Border-State pact lays claim on Great Lakes
Chicago Sun-Times
Posted on the Indiana Post-Tribune on November 18, 2005

They want our water.

Fear that fast-growing, thirsty communities — as far off as China and as close as Wisconsin — could get their hands on Great Lakes water has driven border-state governors to band together to control the largest single source of fresh surface water on the planet.

The controversial agreement spells out who can and can’t draw on this increasingly valuable resource, holding one-fifth of the world’s — and 90 percent of America’s — fresh water. The governors are scheduled to sign the Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact on Dec. 13 in Milwaukee.

Then begins the arduous task of getting it through eight state legislatures and Congress.

A copy of the document, obtained Thursday by the Chicago Sun-Times, declares that the waters of the Great Lakes “are precious public natural resources shared and held in trust by the states.”

So far, Congress has left it to states to set standards for water withdrawals and conservation. “But if the states don’t act, Congress steps in,” warned Cameron Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes. “We’re trying to fix the roof while it’s sunny outside.”

He and other Great Lakes advocates want standards written into U.S. law — a process that could take years — before the 2010 census. That count will award more seats in Congress to states in the West and Southwest, where burgeoning populations already are straining scarce water supplies. Congress regulates the flow of interstate commerce.

If water comes to be treated as a commodity, as it increasingly is, parched states could stake a claim on Great Lakes water and have the votes to back it up.

International trade law also could come into play. After Canada’s Global Water Corp. contracted with Sitka, Alaska, to ship 25 million gallons a day from its Blue Lake to China, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan and other countries, Canada banned bulk water exports.


The episode was a reminder that many here and abroad view water as a good to be bought and sold.

The compact addresses those concerns by “maintain(ing) control over the waters in the face of growing demand across the nation and throughout the world,” said Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation.

Industry had chafed at conservation provisions. Jon Allan of Consumers Energy, a utility in Jackson, Mich., told reporters at the recent Great Waters Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources that the agreement didn’t have “a chance in hell” of passing the eight state legislatures. But changes since then stress efficiency of water use, which Allan said Thursday is “a better basis than the just-use-less, can’t-have mentality” of an earlier draft.

Davis said conservation measures are essential to the compact: “It’s hard to say no to Arizona if we’re not being smart with our own resources.”

An exception benefitting the bottled water industry allows sale of the lakes’ water in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons, although states are free to impose tighter limits.

Sending mass quantities of Great Lakes water out of the basin is not new. In 1900 Chicago leaders brazenly reversed the flow of the Chicago River. The gargantuan feat cleaned out a river that had become a sluggishly moving open sewer, but insulted the natural order of things by connecting the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.

Thanks to the “Chicago diversion,” Illinois still takes 2.1 billion gallons out of Lake Michigan — enough to fill the Sears Tower five times — every day.

Peter Annin, whose book on Great Lakes diversions is due out next year, calls the river’s reversal a “grotesque precedent.” It’s a precedent cited by Waukesha, Wis., which wants to pump 20 million gallons a day out of Lake Michigan.

The rapidly developing community is less than five miles outside the Great Lakes basin or Lake Michigan watershed — the land area that drains to the lake.

Waukesha objects to a requirement in the compact that any new user of Great Lakes water outside the basin return it to the lakes as treated wastewater.

Chicago and 166 suburbs take Lake Michigan water and don’t have to send it back. And Illinois remains under a U.S. Supreme Court decree that will exempt new users from the compact’s restriction.

It’s also not bound to a new rule limiting Great Lakes states to withdrawing 100,000 gallons a day. The states have 10 years to set higher thresholds based on “reasonable” uses that have no significant adverse impact.

Almost none of Chicago — or Illinois, for that matter — is inside the watershed today. (Because of the 1900 diversion and other manmade changes, the watershed boundary for most of the Chicago area is, practically speaking, the shoreline.)

Premiers of Ontario and Quebec, which control half of every Great Lake except Lake Michigan, already have signed onto the compact’s principles.

Polling consistently shows that people who live in the basin value the lakes highly and will get behind measures to preserve and protect them, said Chuck Ledin of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“People understand that they’re unique in the world, like the Everglades and Yellowstone,” he said. But does the water in them belong to Great Lakes residents? Is it enough that the compact makes exceptions for emergencies? (It would, for example, allow water shipments to victims of a national disaster, such as in New Orleans.) Or is the water national property?

It should stay here, Davis said, arguing that thirsty states and communities outside the basin have been ignoring warning signs of water shortages for 20 years.

“They should have planned better; they should have conserved; yet, they continue to grow uncontrollably,” he said.

Everyone from anywhere is welcome to make use of the lakes for recreation and commercial activities that don’t despoil or deplete the system, said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

“But, we don’t want to solve their long-term water problems,” he said, “for the same reason we’re not going to buy the Rocky Mountains and bring them here.”

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