Who Gets Great Lakes Water?

  • Lake Superior's North Shore. (Photo by Dave Hansen - Minnesota Extension Service)

For the first time, state legislatures in the Great Lakes region have a set of laws in front of
them that could comprehensively define how and where they can use Great Lakes water.
Melissa Ingells has a look at the document called the Great Lakes Compact:


For the first time, state legislatures in the Great Lakes region have a set of laws in front of
them that could comprehensively define how and where they can use Great Lakes water.
Melissa Ingells has a look at the document called the Great Lakes Compact:

For a long time, nobody thought much about regulating the water of the Great Lakes.
They just seemed inexhaustible. There was no firm legal definition of who the water
belonged to, or who could give it away.

At some point, scientists figured out the boundaries of what’s known as the Great Lakes
Basin. It’s like a huge land bowl where all the waterways flow back into the Lakes. It
includes areas of eight states and parts of Canada. Scientists figured out that you had to
leave at least 99% of the water in the lakes in order to maintain all the important
ecosystems that depend on the water.

The natural boundary of the Great Lakes basin started to become a political boundary
when demand for water started rising. The only regulation for a long time was a 1984
federal law that said all the Great Lakes governors had to agree before any water could
be taken out of the lakes.

Then, in 1998, an organization called the Nova Group got a permit from Ontario to ship
water to Asia. People didn’t like that idea at all, and the politicians reacted:

“It seems like every major policy change has a triggering event.”

Dennis Schornack is the U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission, which
oversees Great Lakes issues:

“The Nova permit granted initially by Ontario to this shipping company to take Great
Lakes water apparently by tanker to the far east… was the triggering event to start the
compact in motion. There have been a number of cases over the years… they all lead
down the same path, and that is that we had to have a structure to manage these waters

The Compact Schornack was talking about is the Great Lakes Compact. It’s a
comprehensive set of strict water usage laws. The states realized the need for something
like it after the Nova Group incident, and work on it was completed in 2006. It’s a strong
agreement because each state, and two Canadian provinces through a separate agreement,
must get it through their legislatures and get their governors to sign it. After all the states
have passed it, it has to be approved by the U.S. Congress.

Schornack was one of the people who helped write it. He thinks it’s a pretty good
solution for the lakes:

“This is really a big deal. Whether it’s a perfect solution, who knows, only time will tell,
but it certainly is a very strong and positive step in the right direction. When eight
governors get together and two premiers and decide we’re going to manage a fifth of the
world’s fresh surface water, and we’re going to do it with conservation, we’re going to do
it with very severe restrictions on diversions, this is all very good for the basin, this is
good news.”

The Compact does have its detractors. There are people from the business and
environmental worlds who have problems with some of it, but the general feeling is that
something has to be settled on, and the Compact is a good start. Most states seem
to have bipartisan support in their legislatures, although so far only Minnesota has
actually passed it. Peter Annin is the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.” He
thinks that by legislative standards, things are moving pretty quickly:

“The pace of ratification to the average citizen might seem like it’s
painfully slow and laborious. But in fact, with compacts in general, some of them have
taken ten, twenty years to make it through all the various legislatures. And so here we
are about 18 months after the documents were released… if you look at the eight states,
the vast majority of them have some sort of activity going.”

Annin also thinks that given the pressing issues over natural resources everywhere, that
agreements like the Compact will change the way other regions think about their

“Why it’s a model I think is because it’s encouraging to people to think not just in
political boundaries, but in watershed boundaries, in that the Compact encourages people
to work communally to a greater social and sustainability good on behalf of the regional
water supply and water resources and I think that’s going to be a model for the future no
matter where you are.:

Annin thinks there will be a flurry of activity in the legislatures in the next year or so.
That’s because after the 2010 congressional redistricting, the water-hungry Southwest
will likely have more power in the U.S. House. So it’s in the interest of Great Lakes
States to get the Compact through Congress before those political changes happen.

For the Environment Report, I’m Melissa Ingells.

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