Border-State pact lays claim on Great
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
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,
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.”