Great Lakes Region Ponders How to Keep Its Precious Waters Safe

When a Canadian company floated the idea of hauling Lake Superior water aboard huge tankers to parched sections of Asia, the reaction hereabouts resembled the fury of the region's infamous November gales.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. − When a Canadian company floated the idea of hauling Lake Superior water aboard huge tankers to parched sections of Asia, the reaction hereabouts resembled the fury of the region's infamous November gales.

"Back Off Suckers," warned billboards along Michigan highways that depicted outsiders sipping from the Great Lakes with gigantic straws. Politicians on both sides of the border voiced outrage. Before long, the Canadian agency that had issued a permit for the Superior shipments withdrew it.

In the six years since then, no other proposal has surfaced to ship, pipe or otherwise divert Great Lakes water to arid places. Yet many believe such grabs are inevitable as the global water crisis worsens. Of particular concern is the western United States, with its surging population, demand for water -- and political clout.

"There are threats, and they promise to increase over time," said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Now, the region's governments are debating how to protect the inland seas, tributaries and connecting channels that make up 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water.


Although vast enough to spread a 9 1/2-foot-deep sheet across the continental United States, the lake system is heavily burdened. Nearly 40 million thirsty people live in the region, and its $2 trillion economy features water-dependent industries such as auto manufacturing, shipping, tourism and agriculture.

Lake levels haven't fully recovered from a dropoff several years ago caused by drought and a warming trend. Climate change could push them even lower over the next 30 years, scientists say.

"Despite their size, they're extremely fragile," said Cheryl Mendoza, watershed conservation manager for the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation.

Three years after agreeing to regulate large-scale water withdrawals, the Council of Great Lakes Governors released a detailed plan in July. A public comment period ended last month, and the region's eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces plan to vote on a revised version next spring.

Some environmentalists praise the plan for requiring that any new diversion of water outside the Great Lakes drainage basin meet tough conservation standards. But critics say there's a fatal flaw: The plan concedes such diversions could happen instead of simply prohibiting them.

Regional business groups are worried, too, because the plan would regulate major new uses of Great Lakes water within the region itself. That could inhibit economic growth by creating more bureaucracy and leaving companies uncertain about future water availability, they say.

"If we want to grow and prosper, we can't lock up our water," said George Kuper, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries, whose members include the likes of General Motors Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. "We should remember that it's a recyclable resource and focus on how to use it wisely and efficiently."

Defenders of the plan say it's unrealistic -- and probably unconstitutional -- for people in the region to treat the lakes as a bottomless well while demanding frugality of others.

"We should do better at living within our own means," said Emily Green, the Great Lakes program director for the Sierra Club's Midwestern office in Madison, Wis.

The plan is a legacy of the ill-fated Lake Superior water shipment scheme. The Nova Group, a consulting firm in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, received a provincial permit in 1998 to ship around 156 million gallons a year to Asia.

The company said the amount was such a tiny fraction of the lake's volume, it wouldn't be missed. One official likened the effect to "putting your finger in a bucket of water and taking it out."

But critics said letting one business treat the Great Lakes as an economic commodity would open the floodgates to others, eventually lowering water levels and doing serious ecological damage.

After the Nova permit was revoked, a team of water law experts warned the governors' council the lakes were vulnerable to more attempted raids.

A 1986 federal law allows the governor of any Great Lakes state to veto an out-of-basin diversion. But the lawyers said that measure could be struck down in court as an illegal restraint on commerce and trade.

Other attorneys disagreed, arguing that nothing in the U.S. Constitution or international trade pacts prevents states from protecting their water supplies. But the governors concluded that just saying no to diversions was no longer enough, and developed the Great Lakes Charter Annex Agreement.

Under the plan, any proposal for a new or increased out-of-basin diversion averaging at least 1 million gallons a day over 120 days would need approval of all eight Great Lakes states.

A higher threshold would be set for regulating new or increased withdrawals for consumption within the basin: Those averaging at least 5 million gallons daily over the same period would require approval of at least six states.

All such projects would have to meet standards such as doing no "significant" environmental harm and having a conservation plan.

"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," Naftzger said.

Jim Olson, an environmental attorney in Traverse City, contends that by opening the door to even heavily regulated diversions, the plan "will leave the Great Lakes and its citizens, businesses and tourists with less protection than exists now."

For all the worries that water from the lakes will one day spout from Las Vegas casino fountains, the biggest threat may be closer to home.

Water diversions already take place within the Great Lakes region itself -- and pressure is mounting for more.

By far the biggest occurs at Chicago, which for more than a century has diverted Lake Michigan water to its own municipal system and the Mississippi River. The U.S. Supreme Court limited the volume to 3,200 cubic feet per second, but some worry the city will try to boost the flow.

"If Chicago were to fully utilize their canal system now, they could lower all the Great Lakes by up to six inches," David Ramsay, the Ontario natural resources minister, said recently.

He said Ontario wouldn't endorse the plan unless changes are made to give the lakes stronger protection.

Several communities that straddle or lie just outside the basin pull water from the lakes, including Akron, Ohio, and Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Now under consideration: allowing the rapidly growing Wisconsin city of Waukesha to pump nearly 20 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan.

Some believe the trickle of requests for close-in diversions will become a flood if the governors' plan goes forward. Even small projects could add up to big losses and set a bad precedent, critics say.

"Pinholes become larger holes as time goes on," Olson said.

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.

But uneasiness persists -- especially about those water-guzzling Westerners. After all, trial balloons have been raised over the years about tapping the Great Lakes to boost levels on the Mississippi River or replenish the Ogalalla Aquifer beneath the Great Plains.

Then there was the idea hatched in the 1950s -- and briefly resurrected three decades later -- 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 Kuper, 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, an agency that advises the United States and Canada on Great Lakes issues, 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."

Don't be too sure, said Noah Hall, attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor: "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."

Source: Associated Press