WASHINGTON -- The United States and Canada should not consider any bulk sales of Great Lakes water while the issue is being studied, a U.S.-Canadian commission said recently.
"There should be a bias in favor of retaining water in the system and using it more efficiently and effectively," said Leonard Legault, chairman of the International Joint Commission's Canadian section.
The Great Lakes water has never been sold in bulk, and there are no requests pending in either country to move water out via pipeline, truck, or ship. However, an aborted sales proposal last year aroused concern on both sides of the border, leading to the study.
"You fix the roof when the sun shines, and right now there are not any demands for big bulk removal," said Thomas Baldini, who heads the commission's U.S. section.
The commission -- in an interim report -- suggested a six-month moratorium on bulk water sales while it completes its yearlong study of the issue. That study is intended to help determine the governments' next steps.
There is sentiment in both governments for making sure the water doesn't become a long-haul commodity.
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy issued a statement promising to introduce amendments to the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act this fall that will enable Canada to prohibit removal of water from the lakes. In Washington, legislation already has been introduced to ban bulk shipments of Great Lakes water pending joint action by both nations.
That bill's sponsor, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said the report's conclusion that the lakes have no surplus water support his plan "for legislative action to prevent water sales now and set a policy for any future sales."
In general, experts are concerned only about large-scale movement that takes water out of the Great Lakes system.
Almost all of the water drawn out for irrigation, manufacturing, and drinking water gets used locally and then makes its way back into the basin. The commission cited a 1995 statistic estimating that withdrawals that year amounted to 88,000 cubic feet per second and only 4,096 cubic feet per second were deemed to have been consumed, or not somehow returned to the system.
Of the lakes' entire volume (about 6 quadrillion gallons), rain and snow recycle only about 1 percent, Legault said.
"You can't think of the Great Lakes as a virtually bottomless reservoir," he told reporters. "Once you go beyond that 1 percent, you're mining."
The commission intends to examine both surface water and groundwater in the Great Lakes basin.
It plans public hearings in Milwaukee in September and in Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Gary, Ind.; Duluth, Minn.; Washington, D.C.; Toronto, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and London, Ontario; and Montreal, Quebec, in October.
The commission, which helps the two nations jointly manage their border waters, said it has so far concluded:
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