Great Lakes States Protect Their Water


Dropping water levels in the Great Lakes are forcing heavy-laden ships to turn around or lighten their loads. Booming Midwest suburbs want to tap Great Lakes water to fuel their growth. And hundreds of miles away, drought-stricken states - and even New Mexico's governor - are enviously eyeing the world's largest fresh water source.

With those concerns in mind, eight states bordering the Great Lakes have approved and sent to Congress an agreement to severely restrict water removal from the lakes. While in Ohio July 28, President Bush urged Congress, which is required by the U.S. Constitution to sign off on interstate compacts, to pass the measure quickly.

The compact will ensure sustainable use and responsible management of waters from the Great Lakes Basin and preserve the Great Lakes for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations," Bush said in a statement . The U.S. House and Senate will start hearings on the agreement Wednesday (July 30).

Water experts say the arrangement, which also includes a separate but similar deal with two Canadian provinces, is remarkable because states worked together - rather than fighting among themselves - to strike the bargain.

Current law gives each of the Great Lake states' governors the power to block any attempt to take water out of the lakes, regardless of where the diversion would be. Authors of the pact worried that the courts could strike down the existing law, because it gives the governors broad authority without clear restrictions.

Under the new agreement, governors would retain their veto powers, but they would need to give a legal reason for their decisions. Instead of relying on courts, the compact sets up an administrative process to hear appeals from those who are denied a water diversion.

"The goal is not to allocate water among the states, but to protect the resource itself," said Wayne State University law professor Noah Hall, who helped draft the agreement.

Keeping the Great Lakes full is important for shipping, tourism and electric generation, said Peter Johnson, program director at the Council of Great Lakes Governors .

But Michigan environmental lawyer James Olson said the compact has a "gaping hole" that would undermine the goal of preserving Great Lakes water, because it allows private companies to bottle the water and sell it. That opens a host of legal issues under federal law and international trade agreements that could unravel the agreement, he said.

"Everybody wants to look at the 60 percent to 70 percent of this document that's good. They don't want to look at the 30 percent to 40 percent of it that's bad," Olson said.

States frequently clash over water. Straining to keep up with Atlanta's rapid growth, Georgia is in legal battles over water with all of its neighbors - including a 190-year-old border dispute with Tennessee and North Carolina. Western states have been arguing about how to use Colorado River water since they signed a pact in 1922.

Cities in dry areas, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, are under increased strain because of population booms there. But this growth has given many areas in the South and West more political power, at the expense of the slower-growing Great Lakes region.

Proponents of the pact had worried that Congress - instead of local authorities - would determine what to do with Great Lakes water. And with the numbers of U.S. House members from drier areas growing, they argued that the Great Lakes needed to be protected as soon as possible.

Their fears were crystallized in the presidential campaign, when then-candidate Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico called for a national water policy in an October interview with the Las Vegas Sun . "States like Wisconsin are awash in water," he said.

Supporters of the new deal said Richardson's comment galvanized state legislators to pass the agreement. Illinois and Minnesota approved it in 2007; the other six states (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) ratified it this year. In most legislatures, the agreements passed overwhelmingly.

"In the Midwest, the Great Lakes are up there with motherhood and apple pie. Emotional issues are often very divisive. The Great Lakes are different. Everybody's standing up to say, 'I'm protecting the Great Lakes,'" said Hall, the Wayne State professor.

Dan Tarlock, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, said the idea of cities in the South and West siphoning off Great Lakes water is unrealistic. Just delivering the water would take a pipeline hundreds of miles long, an enormous public works project that would cost a fortune, he said.

The deal would more likely affect cities close to the lakes where water flows toward the Mississippi River or another body of water. The agreement would designate when these outside areas could tap into Great Lakes water.

The issue is especially important for cities like Waukesha and New Berlin, two Milwaukee suburbs that rely on groundwater. Their wells are going dry and the water from those wells is tainted with radium. Because their sewers already direct water toward Lake Michigan, they want to use lake water so their aquifers can replenish, said Wisconsin state Rep. Scott Gunderson (R).

Questions over how to deal with Waukesha and New Berlin threatened to sink the Great Lakes agreement in the Wisconsin Legislature until lawmakers reached a compromise in May.

Michigan, which markets itself as the "Great Lakes State," was the last state to join the compact when Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) signed it July 9.

The compact does not change the rules regarding Chicago, which is responsible for the largest diversion from the Great Lakes. The city reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900 so it drains out of Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi River watershed. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the arrangement in 1967.


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