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Great Lakes Article:

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 limited exceptions.

"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 challenges."

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 said.

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 issue.

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 political reasons."

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