Hands off Great Lakes
Are the Council of Great Lakes Governors planning to sell
out our water?
By Elizabeth May
Published September 17th, 2004
As an environmentalist with more than 30 years of activism
under my belt, I am generally not vulnerable to complacency.
But if there is any area of environmental concern I tend
to feel is well in hand it is the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes have a strong governance structure. The
International Joint Commission, a binational agency created
by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, has been a voice for
conservation, for cleaner water, reducing pollution, and
for the ecological integrity of the lakes.
There are serious issues of ongoing pollution of the
lakes that engage Sierra Club volunteers on both sides
of the border. No one could be complacent about the issue
of Great Lakes pollution. But there was, I thought, no
chance that anyone would suggest selling off Great Lakes
The IJC and the Canadian federal government have clear,
unequivocal positions against any diversion of water from
the Great Lakes Basin. I thought that meant no diversions
would take place. I was wrong.
For the last few years, something called the Council
of Great Lakes Governors and Premiers have been developing
a plan for diversions.
They call it the Implementing Agreement for Annex 2001.
You have probably never heard of it. It was placed for
public consultation on July 19 with a deadline for comments
within 90 days — Oct. 18.
It is the product of three years of negotiation, primarily
among the Great Lakes governors. The 40 million residents
of the basin who depend on its waters get 90 days to figure
(After Oct. 18, the agreements can be approved and sent
to the U.S. Congress for legislation and enacted as law
by the provinces on the Canadian side.)
One of the experts who has analyzed the agreement, Ralph
Pentland, calls it tantamount to a "Water for sale"
sign over the Great Lakes.
Pentland is not some wild-eyed radical. He was Canadian
co-chair of the IJC study board on the issue of Great
Lakes' diversions and consumptive uses and before that
for nearly two decades was director of Environment Canada's
Pentland has compared the impact of the decision about
to be taken over the future of the Great Lakes with another
potential Aral Sea disaster.
The Aral Sea in central Asia was once famous as the third
largest lake in the world. It is now famous for the stark
images of rusting hulks of freighters stranded in a toxic
dust bowl where fish once swam. The lake is now too toxic
and salty for fish and has shrunk in area by more than
60 per cent.
In Pentland's view, the agreement between the governors
and premiers places the Great Lakes on a "slippery
slope." The comparison to the fate of the Aral Sea
is not hyperbole.
For the first time in history, this agreement would open
the Lakes to water diversions based on the premise that
customers for Great Lakes water from outside the Great
Lakes Basin have to be treated equally to those inside
the basin. Water takings would happen one permit at a
The language of the agreement imposes conditions and
claims to be about protecting the waters of the Great
But, in reality, the tests of when a diversion is appropriate
are subjective. If a user claims that they cannot manage,
even with aggressive water conservation measures that
can be enough to open the taps.
The agreement claims that any water taken out of the
basin must be put back in. But it is simply not possible
to replace bulk water transfers within the lake system,
or to engage in effective trade-offs between different
lake ecosystem components. Moreover, once the waters of
the Great Lakes are up for sale, the impact of trade agreements
will take over.
What had been a slippery slope will be greased by trade
The Great Lakes already face significant threats to both
quantity and quality.
A major factor will be the impacts of climate change.
At this point, even with aggressive implementation of
Kyoto, growing climatic instability cannot be avoided.
Humanity has already changed the chemistry of the global
atmosphere, increasing the absolute proportion of greenhouse
gases by more than 30 per cent.
This is not reversible except over centuries. So, while
we must reduce fossil fuel use at a much more accelerated
rate than that to which we are committed under Kyoto,
we also have to face the fact that the climate is changing.
Dropping water levels in the lakes will be part of our
future. Water shortages and droughts will as well. Deciding
in 2004 that it is a good business proposition to allow
the transfer of tens of millions of gallons of water a
day from the Great Lakes is nothing short of reckless.
It is not too late. Just say "No" to bulk water
diversions from the Great Lakes.
Elizabeth May is the executive director of the Sierra
Club of Canada.