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Great Lakes Article:

Water diversions mostly prohibited under revised Great Lakes plan
By John Flesher
Associated Press Writer
Published on on: June 30, 2005

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- A revised plan for protecting the Great Lakes carries a warning for thirsty regions dreaming of tapping into the nation's biggest supply of surface fresh water: Forget it.

New or expanded diversions outside the drainage basin would be prohibited in most cases under a proposal released Thursday by the Council of Great Lakes Governors, which represents the eight states and two Canadian provinces adjacent to the lakes. The only diversions eligible for consideration would be to areas straddling the boundary of the basin, which sprawls more than 750 miles from the St. Lawrence River to beyond the western shore of Lake Superior.

Meanwhile, the states and provinces would oversee large-scale water use within their own jurisdictions, based on standards that emphasize conservation.

The plan is an update of a regulatory framework known as Annex 2001, a regionwide strategy for safeguarding the lakes as the growing worldwide water shortage makes them a tempting target.

"One of the things we believe these agreements do is to send a clear message to other regions of the country that diversions of Great Lakes water ... is not the easy answer to their growing water problems," said Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and chairman of a staff group that developed the plan.

An initial version was released a year ago, and has been altered in response to more than 10,000 public comments.

Council staffers will accept comments for 60 days on the latest version and could make additional changes before submitting it to the governors for their consideration. They emphasized the states and provinces had not reached a consensus.

"It is a work in progress," Speck said.

Perhaps the most significant change from the 2004 version is the approach to out-of-basin diversions. The previous policy drew sharp criticism from some environmentalists and Canadian officials.

It would have allowed new diversions _ or expansions of existing ones _ averaging 1 million gallons a day over 120 days if they met required criteria and were approved by all eight U.S. states. Supporters said the standards were so tough that few, if any, diversions would be permitted. But critics weren't convinced.

The latest version would outlaw diversions but make exceptions for cities, towns and counties partly within the basin and partly outside it.

Diversions to "straddling counties" would require approval of all eight states. Straddling cities would need permission only from their state, but could use the lakes only for a public water supply and would have to return all water not consumed to the basin.

David Ramsay, Ontario's natural resources minister, said he preferred a total ban on diversions but realized a few U.S. communities partly within the basin had contaminated groundwater and needed help.

"For U.S. states, the practical solution for this problem was to allow a limited exception for near-basin communities," Ramsay said, according to Canadian Press. "Ontario recognizes this reality and we negotiated hard to limit the types of exemptions and require them the toughest possible tests to restrict them."

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said the new language on diversions was encouraging. "The Great Lakes are our most precious natural resource and it is critical that we act responsibly to protect them," she said.

The previous version's acceptance of limited diversions was based on legal advice _ disputed by some experts _ that a ban could be struck down by U.S. or international courts as an illegal restriction on commerce.

But supporters said the updated approach would have a good chance of surviving a court challenge.

"The prohibition on diversions is part of a comprehensive water management policy, including strict standards for in-basin use," said Noah Hall, a National Wildlife Federation attorney. "Because we're cleaning up our proverbial house, it gives us the legal authority to prohibit diversions out of the region."

Another crucial change in the plan gives the states and provinces more authority to regulate in-basin water use. Previously, some large-scale withdrawals would have needed a permit from a regional agency, which drew complaints from business interests such as the Council of Great Lakes Industries.

George Kuper, president of the council, said Thursday the group was studying the updated plan and wasn't ready to give a detailed assessment.

"It has some aspects that I like and some that I'm concerned about," Kuper said.

Environmentalists mostly praised the revised plan but complained about some changes, including deletion of a previous requirement that large water users take steps to "improve" the ecosystem.



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