Column: Can our Great Lakes water be stolen?

Published 9:52 am Thursday, November 1, 2007

By Staff
California's drought inspired wildfires are dominating the news but of near epic proportions is the drought in the Southeast. Not surprisingly, Southerners are now drooling over all that water languishing in our Great Lakes.
This is nothing new. From time immemorial the thirsty states of the Southwest have plotted and planned how they might tap into the Great Lakes. We can only speculate on the effects of siphoning off great quantities of Great Lakes water. The Lakes water levels naturally fluctuate greatly from year to year with more than six feet between the historical high and low. Perhaps we could safely sell a few billion gallons at peak water levels but during low periods such as now – not! Of course, once we opened the spigot to outsiders they would be instantly and permanently addicted. So far, dreams of cross country pipelines and convoys of tanker trucks have been squelched but now with the Southeast joining the lines of the thirsty I'm wondering just how safe our precious water really is.
In researching this, the first thing I discovered is it's an extremely complicated issue. Eight states and two Canadian provinces border the Great Lakes and their outlet, the St. Lawrence River, and we all know it's mission impossible to get that many politicians to agree on anything. It's not even clear who owns Great Lakes water. The boundaries for the land underneath are well defined but not water ownership so it's generally presumed the water is under Public Trust, meaning everyone, not just Great Lakes States and Provinces. That in itself is precarious. Protection efforts must also dance around a plethora of State, Federal and International trade and treaty laws, natural resources regulations, Indian treaty rights, the necessity for regional economic prosperity and on and on.
Cutting through all that chafe I found that currently Great Lakes waters are protected by three agreements. First is the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This is simply an agreement between U.S. and Canada to refrain from any water use that would harm the waters of the other country. Considering all the pollution of the Great Lakes over the decades, it's clear this is toothless. Next came the Great Lakes Charter of 1985 where the Governors of the eight Great Lakes States and Canadian Premiers are urged to seek each others approval for the diversion of large quantities of water. The catch here is both the U.S. and Canada have laws preventing states and provinces from entering into agreements with each other so the Great Lakes Charter is nothing more than a hand shake by politicians that aren't even around anymore. Lastly is the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 and 2000. This Federally sanctioned act prohibits the export of Great Lakes water out of the region unless agreed upon by all eight Great Lakes State Governors. Not too bad but it's still relying on the honesty and good will of politicians, neither of which are trademark traits in those circles.
So, everyone concerned with protecting our precious water is now feeling pretty spooky. There is a savior out there, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resource Compact. A result of much scientific and economic study, this Compact effectively protects Great Lakes water while reasonably accommodating the water needs within the region. In 2005 all the region's Governors and Premiers signed their endorsement but it still has to go through state and Federal legislative processes to be binding. After nearly three years the politicians are still thumb sitting. Only Minnesota and Illinois have passed it. Here's Michigan with by far the most vested interest yet we've gone nowhere. Last year a Bill was introduced to adopt this Compact but it was stuck at the bottom of the pile and died at the end of Michigan's Legislative session. Michigan and several more states are still calling the Compact "active" on their docket but… Several other states seem to be ignoring it completely.
Meanwhile you can bet the thirsty states are huddled in dark rooms conniving how best to slip through our flimsy shield and tap into our most precious resource. Carpe diem.