U.S. Water News Online
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The governors of the eight Great
Lakes states worked for four years to write a plan that would protect
their abundant water from being piped south to regions where booming
populations face dwindling water supplies.
But the sharpest attacks on the proposed regional compact are
coming not from the distant Sun Belt but from within the Great Lakes
states themselves as the plan is submitted to legislators for
Some communities in the eight states say the compact's strict
limits on water diversion could leave them high and dry. Critics fear
a torrent of lawsuits.
And supporters say the whole deal could unravel over an Ohio
lawmaker's concerns about private property rights and insistence on
Backers are confident the plan adopted by the governors in 2005
will win needed approval by all eight states and Congress, but
acknowledge it probably will take a few more years.
The longer the delay, they say, the greater the risk of losing
control over the lakes -- which, with their connecting channels and
the St. Lawrence River, hold nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh
"It's OK to take a year or two to sort this out, but then they'd
better buckle down and get on the same page," said Noah Hall, an
environmental law professor at Wayne State University. "The real
attacks are going to come in Congress, from states outside the region
who don't want to see the Great Lakes locked up."
Skeptics doubt the supposed threat from the thirsty Sun Belt,
saying shipping or piping water over such distances would have
staggering costs and engineering challenges.
Still, "the time to put in place good water management is when you
don't have a problem," said George Kuper, president of the Council of
Great Lakes Industries, which represents companies such as Dow
Chemical Co. and U.S. Steel Corp.
Despite the difficulties, grandiose diversion schemes have
surfaced, including one entrepreneur's 1998 proposal to send tankers
of Lake Superior water to Asia.
That idea quickly evaporated. But it inspired the governors to
devise the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources
Compact, which treats the lakes and associated groundwater as one
It outlaws new or increased diversions, with limited exceptions,
and also requires each state to adopt a conservation plan and
regulate its own water use in keeping with common standards.
The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec weren't included
because U.S. states can't make treaties with foreign nations, but
they signed a similar, nonbinding agreement.
In February, Minnesota became first to ratify the compact, which
also has cleared the Illinois House and is pending in the state
Senate. Bills have been introduced in Michigan and Indiana but aren't
close to enactment. The matter is drawing little attention in
Pennsylvania, where only the state's northwest corner is inside the
Great Lakes drainage basin.
Among the issues facing lawmakers is the status of communities
inside a Great Lakes state but outside the lakes' natural watershed.
Waukesha, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, wants to draw water from Lake
Michigan, only 15 miles away, but is just outside the lake's drainage
area. The compact might allow the city to get its water because it's
within a county that straddles the basin boundary, but that would
require unanimous consent of the eight states' governors.
The Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce wants the deal amended so
one state can't veto diversions to straddling counties. "Our argument
is not to eliminate the compact. Our argument is to make sure it's
fair," chamber spokesman Brian Nemoir said.
The pact appeared headed for approval in Ohio last year. But state
Sen. Tim Grendell raised enough concerns to stall it. The Cleveland
Republican particularly distrusts a declaration that Great Lakes
water is held in public trust, saying that provision would void
private ownership of farm ponds and even well water.
"The government is being encouraged to take people's property
without paying for it. That is flat-out un-American," Grendell said.
Compact supporters say it honors existing rights. The public trust
doctrine has been settled law since the late 1800s and balances needs
of individuals and society, said Hall, the Wayne State professor.
The New York Senate balked last year at a provision allowing
lawsuits against government agencies over failure to enforce the
pact's standards. Backers say the compact grants no more access to
the courts than other environmental laws, and allows states to handle
local concerns under their own water-use rules.
"The governors looked at all these issues and found ways to
delicately handle them," said Molly Flanagan, a Great Lakes
specialist with the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor. "Now
is not the time to renegotiate the deal. Now is the time to get it
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