Great Lakes region fights to protect
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
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
Only about 1 percent of the lakes’ contents is renewed
annually through precipitation, surface runoff and groundwater
“Despite their size, they’re extremely fragile,” said
Cheryl Mendoza, watershed conservation manager for the
Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation.
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
“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.
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
“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
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.”
Noah Hall, a Michigan-based attorney with the National
Wildlife Federation, said would-be raiders are bound to
“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.
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
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
“Pinholes become larger holes as time goes on,” Olson
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.