Column: Protecting Great Lakes water now official

Published 3:40 am Thursday, October 23, 2008

By Staff
Since the Great Lakes are so much a part of our everyday lives most of us Michiganders take them for granted. Unlike so many people in other parts of the country, and around the world for that matter, we never worry about having water to drink, to nourish our crops, for bathing, washing cars and keeping our lawns lush.
Thanks to the Great Lakes water is a non issue for us. But much of the rest of the world is thirsty and getting thirstier with each passing year. Worldwide there are some one billion people without access to clean drinking water. The United Nations estimate that by 2025 two thirds of the world population will be facing water shortages. The fast growing global water shortage is putting tremendous pressure on water rich regions of the world. It's no secret that a thirsty world has longing eyes on our most precious resource.
Until a couple weeks ago the protection of our Great Lakes water was tenuous. Over the years the eight Great Lakes states and neighboring Canadian provinces have entered into various agreements designed to protect the Great Lakes' waters but they were fraught with loopholes and flaws. One awakening call in the early 1990s was when Canada agreed to allow 156,000,000 gallons per year of Great Lakes water to be shipped to Asia. The ensuing outcry caused them to back out of the deal but the warning flag was up. A team of experts was assembled to develop a comprehensive Great Lakes protection plan. After a decade of studies, drafting, haggling and debating the Great Lakes – Saint Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact emerged. Commonly called the Great Lakes Compact, it was accepted by all the Great Lakes states and Canada adopted a companion version. In August of this year it passed the Senate. Last month it passed the House and on Oct. 3 President Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law.
The Great Lakes contain nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water, six quad-rillion gallons that, if poured out over the lower 48 states would cover them with nine and a half feet of water. So with all that water why are we being so stingy? Simple, if us here in the Great Lakes Basin are to meet our current water needs, accommodate predicted population and economic growth and keep one of the world's largest and most un-ique ecosystems intact there's not a drop to spare. The Great Lakes are imperative to our economy. One third of all boats registered in the U.S. are moored in the Great Lakes states. Recreation and commercial use of the Great Lakes generates $50 billion a year. The Great Lakes are vast but they are not bottomless. Less than one percent of the Great Lakes' water can be replenished each year by rain, snow and groundwater stre-ams flowing in. In addition global warming is taking its toll. Warmer temperatures and shor-ter ice cover periods are enhancing evaporation. Some computer models show future Great Lakes water levels dropping as much as eight feet from global warming induced evaporation.
Hopefully the Great Lakes Compact has the teeth to protect our treasure for decades to come. It bans, with very limited exceptions, the diversion of water outside the Basin (the geographical area that drains into the Great Lakes). Unlike previous state and provincial agreements, it also mandates wise and efficient use of water within the Basin. It treats the Great Lakes as one entity, not independent lakes and waterways. What Chicago does with the water affects folks in Detroit and Cleveland and vice versa. It requires all the Great Lakes states to develop water management plans, providing for sufficient flexibility yet meeting a common use and conservation standard. My hat is off to the developers of the Compact.
It was a near impossible mission to effectively protect the resource while accommodating the needs and whims of countless municipalities, commercial, tribal, state, federal and provincial entities. Granted, the Compact is not perfect. There may still be issues with such things as the insatiable bottled water industry but we are now in a position to deal with leaks rather than having the whole dam collapse. Carpe diem.