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Great Lakes: A Watershed Agreement


Chicago was the first city to siphon off large quantities of the Great Lakes’ abundant freshwater when, in the 1800s, it reversed the Chicago River to flow out of Lake Michigan. In the late 1970s Minnesota feared that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would consider recharging the Great Plains’ massive reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer, with lake water. Then 10 years ago the Nova Group, a Canadian company, obtained a permit to ship 158 million gallons from Lake Superior to Asia.

Although Nova ultimately withdrew its proposal, it was “the lightning rod” that triggered a push for better water management, says David Naftzger, who heads the nonpartisan Council of Great Lakes Governors. “People were surprised and alarmed that this kind of thing could be approved.” After poring over the region’s water laws, legislators from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin drafted the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact by December 2005. The agreement, which President George W. Bush signed into law last October 3, bans all new or increased water diversions out of the drainage basin, with limited exceptions. The ambitious legislation treats the entire Great Lakes watershed—the world’s largest surface freshwater resource—as a single entity.

“That’s what makes it such a precedent-setting law—it manages water in an ecosystem holistically,” says Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. Most compacts allocate water among states, often parceling out the scarce resource while giving ecological protections low, if any, priority, he says. “The Great Lakes got ahead of the curve. Knowing that the world is becoming much thirstier and that the demand for freshwater is accelerating, the states decided to put in place a rational system of water protection before there was a crisis.”

During the past decade, dropping water levelsup to two to three feet in some of the lakes—have alarmed residents and taxed shipping and other industries dependent on the lakes. At the same time global warming projections indicate levels could fall as much as 6.5 feet. Such a decline would spell disaster for estuarine and wetland areas, and for the fish, waterfowl, and migratory birds that inhabit them. Blocking water export projects wouldn’t necessarily save the lakes from drastic climate change, but it could soften the blow.

States have two years to develop and implement their own water conservation programs. Overall, they will likely require returning most treated wastewater to the lakes and monitoring water use more carefully. In Ohio, water conservation laws that apply to the Great Lakes basin affect the entire state, says Jerry Tinianow, executive director of Audubon Ohio. What’s more, each state but Michigan lies mostly outside of the basin. If these states are anything like Ohio, says Tinianow, the compact “could have an impact that goes beyond the Great Lakes basin itself.”

You can learn more about the importance of the Great Lakes by watching Inland Seas: Understanding and Protecting the Waters of the Great Lakes. Produced by ecologist Rebecca Klaper of the University of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Water Institute and filmmaker Matt Radcliff of Paignton Pictures, Inland Seas features interviews with local scientists, policy experts, and water managers to explore the basics of water resources and how they fit into water-policy making.

To order the film, click here.

To watch a trailer from the movie, click on the image below.

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