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Senate Fiscal AgencyGary S. Olson, Director - Lansing, Michigan - (517) 373-2768 - TDD (517) 373-0543Internet Address:


March/April 2002


by Nobuko Nagata, Legislative Analyst

Introduction:The Great Lakes basin covers approximately 95,000 square miles and contains five ofthe largest freshwater lakes in the world. The Great Lakes system and its bays andtributaries contain 20% of the world's supply of freshwater and 95% of North America'ssupply of surface freshwater. They provide a vast array of benefits including water fordrinking, recreation, agricultural and industrial needs, energy production, economical andefficient transportation, and environmental balance.According to the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission (IJC), established by theBoundary Waters Treaty of 1909, all of the water in the Great Lakes basin is currentlybeing used in some way. There is in effect no surplus resource, but rather competitionamong users.

The National Wildlife Federation reports that within the next 25 years, thenumber of countries facing chronic water shortages will increase to 50. That, coupledwith a constant rise in world population and the need for freshwater, poses a seriousthreat to the Great Lakes resource. Therefore, it is necessary to review existing andpotential activities that have or could have a substantial impact on the supply and sharingof the Great Lakes water resource. Because of the subject's complexity, this articlesimply provides a brief overview for those unfamiliar with the issue. It explains thebackground of the issues concerning Great Lakes water diversion; discuses its potentialimpacts; and reviews current water management policies.

Background: The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) states that Great Lakesdiversion is a man-made transfer of water into or out of the Great Lakes basin or betweenthe basins of two Great Lakes.

Consumptive water use is the withdrawal from the GreatLakes basin of water that is not returned to the original source because it is consumedby people, plants, or animals; incorporated into products (such as bottled water); or lostthrough evaporation or leakage.There are currently five major diversions in the Great Lakes basin, which are used forcommercial navigation, energygeneration, and municipal water purposes. The CanadianLong Lac and Ogoki diversions transfer water into Lake Superior and are important forhydroelectric power generation. The Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan transferswater out of metropolitan Chicago through the Illinois waterway. The New York StateBarge Canal and the Welland Canal are intrabasin diversions that transfer water fromLake Erie to Lake Ontario. Reportedly, excluding the New York State Barge Canaldiversion, these major diversions and consumptive uses have produced some changesin Great Lakes levels and outflows.

Moreover, recent public concern has been focused on the potential movement offreshwater in bulk beyond the Great Lakes basin. In 1998, a Canadian companyproposed a plan to export 158 million gallons of water from Lake Superior to Asia. Theplan was rescinded after public objection. In February 2002, three northern MichiganIndian tribes sued to prevent groundwater diversion from the Great Lakes by a Perrierwater bottling plant, which received DEQ permits in August 2001.

The Mecosta Countyplant is expected to produce more than 260 million gallons of bottled water annually.According to an article in theDetroit Free Press(3-1-02), the tribes are concerned aboutthe potential impacts on Great Lakes water levels.ImpactsAccording to the Michigan Environmental Council, the annual rainfall, surface waterrunoff, and inflow from groundwater sources renew only 1% of the water in the GreatLakes. Most of the freshwater source is a result of glacial disposition.

The water levelof each of the Great Lakes depends virtually on the balance between the amount of waterentering and the amount of water leaving the basin. Therefore, large-scale waterdiversion and consumptive use could have various impacts on the Great Lakes.Essentially, the magnitude of the net effect on the water level of each Great Lakedepends on the location and diversion in the system. Reportedly, the combined effectof the existing diversions has raised water levels in Lake Superior and Lake Ontario byless than one inch; dropped water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan by more thantwo inches; and dropped levels in Lake Erie by five inches.

These changes are smallcompared with the annual range of natural lake level fluctuations, but the combined effectof one or more large-scale diversions and increased consumption could have a significantpotential impact on the water supply. According to an article on Great Lakes Diversion and Consumptive Water Use published by the Legislative Service Bureau's Science and Technology Division, diversions and consumptive uses could potentially have moredramatic local effects on smaller lakes and streams in the Great Lakes basin.Since the water depth in navigational channels dictates the amount of cargo and loadingcapacity of a vessel, commercial navigation could experience large economic losses froma drop in lake levels caused by diversion. The capacity of several major hydroelectricpower plants in the connecting channels of the Great Lakes is directly proportional to thevolume of water available to flow through the system. Therefore, a drop in lake levelswould have an effect on pumping costs.

The diversion of Great Lakes water also couldinfluence beach use, alter fish and wildlife resources, and affect coastal interests. Thereis also a possibility that an out-of-basin diversion could increase pollutant concentrationsand provide a passage for the unintentional introduction and spread of aquatic nuisancespecies.According to the IJC, however, there is insufficient information available to draw anycumulative or substantial basin-wide economic or environmental implications.

Presumably, most people would agree that diversions and large consumptive uses shouldnot be allowed without thorough regulatory review, comprehensive analysis, adequatecommunication, and unanimous approval.

The following is a brief description of severalmajor Great Lakes water management policies that are currently in effect: The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 is a binding agreement that prohibits theconsumptive use, obstruction, and diversion of boundary waters (waters intersected bythe international boundary between United States and Canada, which excludes tributariesand Lake Michigan) that affect the natural level or flow of boundary waters without theapproval of the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission created under the treaty.

The Great Lakes Charter of 1985 is a nonbinding agreement between the Great Lakesstate governors and Canadian premiers to conserve the levels and flows of the GreatLakes and tributaries, to protect and conserve the Great Lakes basin's ecosystemresources, and to facilitate cooperation between the two countries. The Charter requiresthe approval of any diversion of water greater than 5 million gallons per day average inany 30-day period. A state or province, however, may approve plans over otherjurisdictions' objections. The Annex 2001, an amendment to the Great Lakes Charterthat was signed in June 2001, directs the states and provinces to develop a new bindingagreement to manage the waters of the Great Lakes, develop a standard for new orincreased water withdrawals, and make further commitments to continue to improve theGreat Lakes water management system.

The Federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986 requires the approval of allGreat Lakes states' governors on any proposed diversion of water from the Great Lakes system outside of the basin. The Act, however, does not address consumptive uses of Great Lakes water within the basin.

Part 327 (Great Lakes Preservation) of Michigan's Natural Resources and EnvironmentalProtection Act (MCL 324.32701-324.32714) prohibits new diversions of water out of the Great Lakes basin from Michigan's portion of the Great Lakes. It establishes a Statewater use registration and reporting program, requires the Department of EnvironmentalQuality to cooperate and exchange information with other states and provinces, andcreates the Water Use Protection Fund. The Act, however, does not restrict consumptiveuses of Great Lakes' waters.Through a variety of permit and/or approval requirements, the other Great Lakes statesalso regulate diversions and consumptive uses of water in the Great Lakes basin.

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