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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes region fights to protect its water
By John Flesher
Associated Press, Published in Canton Repository
Published October 24th, 2004

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — When President Bush made a campaign speech in this Lake Michigan shoreline town, he threw in a surefire applause line — and it wasn’t about Saddam Hussein or tax cuts.

“We’re never going to allow diversion of Great Lakes water,” Bush boomed, igniting a prolonged explosion of cheers, whoops and placard-waving.

The scene might have puzzled a visitor from another part of the country. But the well-briefed president obviously knew that folks around here are getting jittery about their water.

As the arid Southwest’s population surges and the global fresh water crisis worsens, fears are growing that outsiders will suck the Great Lakes dry — or at least diminish the inland seas, connecting channels and tributaries that hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

The lakes are vast enough to spread a 9.5-foot-deep sheet across the continental United States. Yet heavy demands are placed on them from nearly 40 million thirsty people — and a $2 trillion regional economy featuring water-dependent industries such as auto and steel manufacturing, shipping and agriculture.

Only about 1 percent of the lakes’ contents is renewed annually through precipitation, surface runoff and groundwater flow.

“Despite their size, they’re extremely fragile,” said Cheryl Mendoza, watershed conservation manager for the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation.

Veto power

Since 1986, federal law has empowered the governor of any Great Lakes state to veto exports of water outside the system’s drainage basin, which sprawls more than 750 miles from the St. Lawrence River to beyond the western shore of Lake Superior.

But a failed proposal six years ago to ship Lake Superior water to Asia prompted warnings that the law could be struck down in court as a violation of the U.S. Constitution and free-trade pacts.

“The system in the Great Lakes basin is vulnerable to attack,” said James Lochhead, a Denver water law specialist and author of a report on the matter.

Now, the eight states and two Canadian provinces adjacent to the lakes are considering a new approach. They have developed a plan based on the hotly disputed premise that just saying “no” to diversions is no longer enough.

The Great Lakes Charter Annex Agreement, known informally as Annex 2001, would not try to ban all out-of-basin diversions. Instead, it would subject them to what supporters describe as tough regulations meant to protect the lakes from misuse.

Diversions averaging more than 1 million gallons a day over 120 days would require unanimous approval of the eight states.

“The governors and premiers want to be sure we have the strongest legal foundation we can to deal with these proposals, regardless of where they come from,” said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Public trust

Critics say the plan makes a crucial error by conceding that diversions cannot be stopped. It underestimates the powers held by the states under the common-law principle that the lakes are a public trust, not an economic commodity, said Jim Olson, an environmental attorney in Traverse City.

“The agreements, as drafted, will leave the Great Lakes and its citizens, businesses and tourists with less protection than exists now,” Olson said.

After agreeing on the principles three years ago, the governors’ organization in July released a blueprint for implementing Annex 2001.

A public comment period ended Oct. 18. Naftzger said the governors and premiers hope to sign a final version next spring, then send it to the state legislatures and Congress for ratification.

Among many issues the debate raises is whether the threat of water grabs from the U.S. West or other nations is genuine, or a red herring.

The region was jolted in 1998 when The Nova Group, a consulting firm in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, received a permit from the province’s environmental agency to haul about 156 million gallons a year from Lake Superior to the Far East aboard large tankers.

The company said the amount was a minuscule fraction of the lake’s total volume and wouldn’t affect water levels. No matter. Deluged with criticism, the Ontario agency withdrew the permit.


Even then, people worried. Billboards popped up along Michigan highways depicting stereotypical Westerners — a Texas cowboy, a California surfer — sipping from the lakes with oversized straws. “Back Off Suckers,” they proclaimed.

Other trial balloons over the years have envisioned tapping the Great Lakes to boost levels on the Mississippi River or replenish the Ogalalla Aquifer beneath the Great Plains.

In the 1950s and briefly three decades later, a plan surfaced to pipe water from James Bay in Canada to the Great Lakes, which in turn would sell water to Western states. Estimated price tag: $100 billion.

Skeptics say it’s no accident that such grandiose schemes have never gotten beyond the drawing board.

“The whole idea is overblown,” said George Kuper, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries. “It would cost a huge amount of money to move that much water, and you’d have all kinds of logistical issues to deal with.”

The International Joint Commission, a Canadian-U.S. agency that advises both countries on Great Lakes policies, said in a 2000 report there was “little reason to believe that such projects will become economically, environmentally, and socially feasible in the foreseeable future.”

Real threat

Noah Hall, a Michigan-based attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said would-be raiders are bound to try again.

“You see pictures out west of golf courses and booming cities and rivers that have dried up, and you know it’s just a matter of time,” Hall said, acknowledging that such attempts might be a decade or more away.

For all the concern about the distant threat, water exports already take place within the Great Lakes region itself — and pressure is mounting for more.

By far the biggest occurs at Chicago, which since the late 1890s has diverted Lake Michigan water to its own municipal system and the Mississippi River. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the volume to 3,200 cubic feet per second, but some worry the city will try to boost the flow.

Several communities that straddle or lie just outside the basin pull in varying amounts of water. Two of them — Akron and Pleasant Prairie, Wis. — received permission after consulting with the states and provinces as required under the Great Lakes Charter of 1985.

Requests grow

Enacted the next year, the Water Resources Development Act gave the region’s governors veto power over new diversions. Former Gov. John Engler of Michigan blocked a plan by Lowell, Ind., to pipe 1.7 million gallons a day from the lake.

But now the rapidly growing city of Waukesha, Wis., wants to pump nearly 20 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan. Also under consideration: expanding a diversion from the Lake Erie basin that provides drinking water to rural communities in Lorain County.

Some believe the trickle of requests for close-in diversions will become a flood under Annex 2001. Even small projects could add up to big losses and set a bad precedent, critics say.

“Pinholes become larger holes as time goes on,” Olson said.

Sara Ehrhardt, spokeswoman for the Council of Canadians, a citizens-interest group, denounced the plan as “a U.S. scheme to drain our Great Lakes dry.”

Others say the plan’s standards are strict enough to keep diversions to a minimum.

“I don’t think we’ll see this mad rush for Great Lakes water,” said Dick Bartz, water division chief with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

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