Plugging the drain
ENVIRONMENT: An agreement to protect Great Lakes water
has been rewritten to effectively ban diversions.
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published April 8th, 2005
Plans to regulate Great Lakes water diversions have been
rewritten to strengthen a 2004 proposal, prohibiting water
from leaving the region altogether.
A committee representing Canadian officials and the eight
Great Lakes governors met this week in Toronto and is
close to sealing a deal to prevent any new diversions
out of the watershed of any of the Great Lakes, with very
"It's significantly different than last year's....
It was clear that what we had last year wasn't enough.
The premise has changed from a management plan to a prohibition
plan," said Kent Lokkesmoe, waters division director
of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
After reaching accord on the principles of a water-protection
plan in 2001 -- the so-called Annex 2001 agreements --
the Council of Great Lakes Governors in July released
a blueprint for putting the plan to work as an interstate
compact, and as an international agreement with Canadian
provinces that border the lakes.
That plan didn't prohibit diversions, but imposed limits
on diversions outside the Great Lakes basin. It still
allowed projects to pump more than 1 million gallons per
day out of the region with certain restrictions.
After several public hearings, including one in Duluth
in October, plus months of written input, Great Lakes-area
residents submitted more than 10,000 comments. Many were
critical, contending the plan wasn't strong enough.
That original draft was doomed when officials from Quebec,
Ontario and the Canadian federal government all said it
lacked adequate protections. Several Native American tribal
leaders from the United States also panned the agreement,
saying they hadn't been provided enough input.
That sent representatives of the governors and Canadian
authorities back to the negotiating table, where they
now appear close to a deal. The agreement will go back
to each governor later this month and could be back for
public review by May.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Sam Speck,
who leads the committee re-writing the plan, said most
outstanding issues have been resolved.
"What we've come up with now prohibits diversions
except for very limited exceptions," he said in a
telephone interview from Toronto. "The working group
listened to what 10,000 people said. And we heard what
the Canadians said. The first draft needed improving."
Officials apparently have dropped earlier concerns that
a total ban on new diversions might be overturned, possibly
a violation of the Interstate Commerce clause, NAFTA or
GATT. Some officials now say that the weight of an interstate
compact, if approved by Congress, will stand up.
"As long as we're doing it to protect the resource
and not for commercial reasons, it should hold,"
Speck said. "But that's not to say there won't be
Even if the premiers and governors agree, however, the
plan will be far from finished. To make it a viable interstate
compact, all eight state legislatures must approve the
deal -- without amendment -- and then it must pass Congress,
also without changes. That could be well into 2006, or
later, if it happens at all.
Lawmakers "don't like to be told they can't change
things. But that's how it has to work," Lokkesmoe
To become a truly international agreement, Ontario and
Quebec officials also must sign-on.
The plan applies to surface water and groundwater anywhere
within the boundaries of a Great Lakes watershed.
Far-flung plans to send bottled Great Lakes water to
Asia or pipe it to the arid Southwest typically have captured
people's attention and ire. But it's water demands in
and near the Great Lakes basin that are the most pressing
Since 1986, federal law has empowered the governor of
any Great Lakes state to veto exports of water outside
the basin. But a 1998 plan in Ontario to bottle Lake Superior
water and ship it to Asia spurred concerns that the U.S.
law wasn't enough.
The new plan may be bad news for thirsty regions just
outside the Great Lakes watershed, such as Waukesha, Wis.,
near Milwaukee. Waukesha needs water, but has been prevented
from tapping Lake Michigan, just 20 miles away. That's
because Waukesha lies in the Mississippi River watershed,
and Great Lakes advocates are against water leaving the
watershed without coming back. There is no ready water
source on the Mississippi side of the line from which
Waukesha can draw.
The plan will have a limited effect in Minnesota, the
only state to have three major drainage basins in its
borders -- the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Hudson
Bay. Lokkesmoe said communities and industry on the Iron
Range straddle all three watersheds and, with plenty of
water on all sides, can easily find new water sources
outside the Great Lakes watershed, if needed.
The plan also won't affect existing diversions out of
the Great Lakes region, such as the 2.1 billion gallons
that flow from Lake Michigan into the Chicago Ship Canal
every day, about half of which ends up in the Mississippi
River watershed. Another major loss of Great Lakes water
is historic dredging below Lake Huron, which lowered the
level of the lake and sends an extra 845 million gallons
of water toward Lake Erie every day -- although that technically
still remains in the Great Lakes.
The new plan is expected to include provisions requiring
water use within the Great Lakes states to be subject
to increased conservation efforts. Lokkesmoe, however,
said the use of water within the Great Lakes basin really
won't be limited any more than before.
Several states don't even require permits for major water
use from the lakes or their tributaries, with strong political
industries such as agriculture, steel and auto manufacturing
so far blocking any action.
"We're really not doing much for water management
within the basin," he said. "There are states
-- Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania -- where their representatives
say it just isn't possible to go to a permit system for
their big water users. It's just not going to happen for