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Water watch: striving to keep the Great Lakes ours


Who owns the Great Lakes? Or perhaps more to the point, who gets to use them, and who decides that?

Last week, the Council of Great Lakes Governors (the governors and Canadian premiers of the Great Lakes area) released proposed agreements that tackle those questions. The documents --- part of an international agreement known as the Great Lakes Charter Annex --- spell out exactly how the states and provinces ringing the lakes would regulate the withdrawal of Great Lakes water.

Public hearings will be held on the proposals in September, and comments are being accepted through October 19. Once that period is over the states, and provinces will have the chance to ratify the agreements and, in the US side, send them in the form of a compact to Congress. If approved by Congress, the compact would be binding for the states. (The agreement that includes the provinces would be nonbinding, since no mechanism exists to enforce cross-border promises between states and provinces.)

Under the proposed agreements, Great Lakes governors and premiers would have to approve any water withdrawal from the Great LakesBasin of more than 1 million gallons a day in a 120-day period. Any consumptive use --- an activity that doesn't return the water to the lakes --- of more than 5 million gallons a day would have to get similar approval. States and provinces would be required to police smaller withdrawals within their own borders. Water diverted out of the basin would have to be returned in a way that improves the basin's ecology.

Bordered by two nations, eight states, and two provinces, plus numerous local municipalities, the lakes are subject to a hodgepodge of overlapping legal jurisdictions. Consolidating that control is among the aims of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

The impetus for the council members' work was their recognition that the region faces the threat of major water withdrawal, from across the globe to their own backyard. The possibility of external threats was driven home in 1998, when the Ontario government gave the Canadian-based Nova Group a permit to export 156 million gallons of Great Lakes water to Asia each year. At the last minute, the permit was revoked under intense national pressure, but the incident left many people wary.

Meanwhile, inside the basin tremendous amounts of water are already being regularly withdrawn for such purposes as power generation, industry, public supply, and agriculture. Although much of what leaves the lakes and their tributaries eventually finds its way back, much is also lost.

But in a chain of lakes that contains an estimated 6 quadrillion gallons, does even 5 million gallons a day add up to more than a drop in the bucket?

Noah Hall thinks it does. An attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, Hall worked on the advisory group that helped draft the Council of Governors' proposed agreements. The International Joint Commission (created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the US and Canada to administer border waters) estimates that only 1 percent of the lakes' volume is restored through precipitation, run-off, and other sources each year, says Hall. Take more than that, he says, and we'll be reducing the amount of water in the lakes beyond what nature can restore.

Are we at that 1 percent yet? "We don't know for sure," says Hall. "We know we're getting close." And while thirsty users vie for more water, increasingly there's less to go around, Hall says.

"Right now, we're seeing low lake levels in the region," says Hall. That's probably a combination of three factors, he says: increased water use, global warming, and natural cycles.

If users around the basin top the 1 percent mark and start permanently lowering the level of water in the lakes, Hall says, that could be catastrophic. Fishing alone is estimated to generate about $6 billion in local economic activity throughout the basin, he says. Commercial shipping ($4 billion in economic activity, 70,000 jobs), tourism, and hydroelectric power generation at facilities like those owned by the New York Power Authority in Lewiston-Niagara and Massena could also be big losers if lake levels drop. Those two power projects alone generate 10 percent of New YorkState's electricity.

Questions of control and ownership are behind one specific fear that haunts many environmental groups around the basin. They're wondering whether, if push comes to shove, any water protection can hold up before the tribunals that resolve disputes over international trade agreements.

The North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade are designed to keep nations from implementing protectionist policies. Nobody seems to know whether (and to what extent) NAFTA and GATT might apply to public natural resources. With about 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water in the Great Lakes, and the United Nations estimating that 2 billion people will be living with water shortages by mid-century, regional governments don't want to wait and find out the hard way.

"Free trade agreements are certainly one of the things that's creating an urgency to get this thing done," says Hall.

"With international trade agreements," he says, "it's much more difficult to say no to diversions, because that could be seen as discriminatory."

"Generally, if you allow the citizens of one country to do something, you have to let the citizens of another do the same," adds Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator with Buffalo-based Great Lakes United. He lists "the increasing power of trade agreements" as one of the top threats facing the basin's water.

But protecting water supplies isn't a hopeless task, provided that the right laws are in place, says Hall. "Both agreements [NAFTA and GATT] have provisions for environmental protections," he says. That's why the passing the Council of Governors' proposed agreements --- with their conservation-based rationale --- is so important, he says.

Losing Great Lakes water to other shores isn't the only danger. States in the Southwest and Southeast are experiencing population surges as Northeasterners flee the cold or follow jobs. That's causing two simultaneous trends that worry regional environmentalists: even as burgeoning populations are strengthening the political clout of states outside the region, they are sucking up the limited water resources of their regions at an increasing pace.

Reg Gilbert foresees large-scale plans to move huge quantities of Great Lakes water to other regions of the country. While no one has said they're planning to do that, says Gilbert, "we are speculating on the basis of trends." Regardless of whether Bush or Kerry is elected this fall, he contends, "we're going to have more of these extraction-based governments in the future."

Even the idea of an Alaska pipeline-style project, seemingly farfetched, is a possibility, he believes. "Who knows," he says. "Don't put anything past --- I won't say human ingenuity --- human stupidity." Speaking in a more serious tone, he adds: "This is a government that's not afraid to waste money."

Hall agrees. As recently as the 1980s there's been talk of sending water westward to the plains, he says, but mostly it hasn't been taken very seriously. Like Gilbert, he believes that's about to change. "I think we're a few years away from a legitimate proposal to divert water to the Southwest and the Southeast," Hall says.

How long is a few years? "Two to three years," responds Hall.

"When towns in Arizona are running out of water, it's going to be difficult for this region to say no," he says. The Council of Governors' proposed agreements will help Great Lakes states do that, he believes.

But he emphasizes that it's not simply about being stingy: "Our guiding concern is the health of the great lakes," Hall says.

"The biggest certain threat to the basin is that there are no rules to regulate the day-in, day-out withdrawals from the basin," says Gilbert. "The only regulations there are, protect drinking water."

Farm irrigation inside the basin figures prominently among those day-in, day-out withdrawals that have environmentalists like Gilbert worried. According to a November 2002 report released by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, irrigation in the Great Lakes states increased by 30 percent from 1987 to 1997. This was "despite a significant decline in overall land in farms in the Great Lakes region" during that period: about 30 percent, according to the IATP.

And, says a May 2003 report by the Great Lakes Commission, while irrigation accounted for only about .04 percent of the water withdrawn from the Great Lakes in one recent year, 1998, it was responsible for 17.3 percent of the water lost --- withdrawn and not returned.

Patrick Hooker, director of the New York Farm Bureau's Public Policy division, cites the specific needs of certain crops as a primary reason for irrigation in the generally rain-rich Northeast. "It's very difficult to grow some vegetable and fruit crops anywhere in the Great Lakes basin without irrigating," he says.

Some of the neediest of those crops are right here in our backyard: "The soils of the Western New York region and in MonroeCounty are great for fruit growing," says Hooker, who adds that the Greater Rochester and Finger Lakes areas use more Great Lakes water than any other area of the state.

Farm Bureau Legislative Director Jeff Williams says that some irrigation operations in the area withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day. That would subject them to state review under the proposed agreements. None meet the 5 million gallon per day threshold that would subject them to review by the council of regional governors and premiers, he believes.

Williams declined to identify any of those local operations.

Noah Hall believes he knows why irrigation is on the rise. "It's not because we're farming more, but because we're irrigating more," he says. He cites as anecdotal evidence a story told in "Water Follies," a recently released book by University of Arizona Professor Robert Glennon. In order to produce potatoes that McDonalds can use for supersized french fries, farmers have resorted to heavily irrigating a plant that ordinarily thrives in dry conditions, the book says.

"Those companies require a uniformity of product that can only be achieved through massive irrigation," says Hall. "It's not even really keeping small farmers in business; it's to satisfy the needs of a few commodity buyers."

Farm Bureau officials did not respond directly to those assertions. They do share at least one large concern with environmentalists, however. Both groups fear the possibility of putting a price tag on the Great Lakes water in the not-so-distant future. Like homeowners, who pay for the services provided by a water authority --- getting the waters of LakeOntario treated and into your tap at home --- rather than the water itself, farmers who irrigate are not charged for the use of Great Lakes water.

"If there ever were to be a charge for water, that's a concern for our members," says Hooker. He acknowledges that the Council of Governors' agreements don't contain any provision to do that, but he is apprehensive of what he calls "mission creep." Hooker defines that as the tendency of governments to slowly adopt increasingly restrictive pieces of legislation. "It's remarkable when you run a business in this state --- especially a farm --- how many government agencies you have to deal with," he says.

Gilbert also hopes that the water in the Great Lakes will stay free of such economic entanglements as registration and water-use fees, though for slightly different reasons. "That's the first step toward ownership rights," he says. He points out that in the West, where water rights are an established way of life, water-based resources and the environmental quality of many areas often suffer as a result. Though no one's suggesting that the Great Lakes could be privatized, at least not yet, that fear is in the back of many environmentalists' minds, including Gilbert's.

"How do you protect the environment when the most basic element is owned?" he asked.

Giving your comments

Three public hearings will be held on the proposed legislation governing withdrawal of water from the Great Lakes: in Niagara Falls on September 14, in Rochester on September 15, and in Watertown on September 16.

The Rochester hearing will be at the Rochester Institute of Technology Hotel and ConferenceCenter from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m.

You can also submit written comments. Send them to David Naftzger, Executive Director, Council of Great Lakes Governors, 35 East Wacker Drive, Suite 1850, Chicago, Illinois60601. Or e-mail them You can also submit comments online at, where you can find the complete text of the proposal.

The deadline for comments is October 19.