Preserving the Great Lakes

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Recently Minnesota became the first state to approve the landmark Great Lakes Compact – some say it’s a step in the right direction, but others claim it doesn’t go far enough ?A Canadian company’s 1998 proposal to siphon millions of gallons of water from Lake Superior to send to Asian countries in the form of drinking water sparked so much debate that eight U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario came together in an agreement to safeguard the Great Lakes. To take effect, the deal must garner full support from each of the eight states and the U.S. Congress. In February, Minnesota became the first state to enact legislation that endorses the Great Lakes Compact.

Water levels dropping

Concerns centering on the future of the Great Lakes abound as water levels are dropping to lows unheard of since the 1920s. Lake Superior alone is shallower than usual by two feet, researchers said at a conference at the University of Minnesota, sponsored by its Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Initiative, in partnership with the School of Journalism in May. Scientists attributed the lakes’ low levels to rising temperatures that lead to drought.

Those circumstances are particularly disturbing considering predictions that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face a water shortage and will be turning to the Great Lakes region, explained Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, to a roomful of journalists at the Weisman Art Museum.

The Great Lakes comprise nearly 20 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There needs to be a system to moderate the increasing demand for water, he said. The compact is significant as a turning point. “It seems like an historic moment where the region has the opportunity to do something,” he said, adding, “It revolves around sustainability.”

The Great Lakes Compact

Governors from the states in the Great Lakes Basin and leaders from Quebec and Ontario worked for seven years, ending in 2005 with an agreed-upon compromise known as the Great Lakes Compact. Their purpose was to maintain control of the fate of one of the world’s largest reservoirs in their hands, keeping water, for the most part, within the Great Lakes Basin. The firm that, in 1998, planned to export the water overseas, backed out.

The idea behind the compact is to balance competing interests, economic development and sustainable water practices, according to the Minnesota bill. Other aspects of the cross-border treaty address the need for a common benchmark to dictate water uses and a shared philosophy for conservation. Under the agreement, new diversions of water from the lakes are banned, with some exceptions for special circumstances. The state of Illinois, for instance, where the Chicago River flows backwards (nicknamed the Illinois diversion), gets an exemption for this water use.

Another large exception is made for bottled water companies. The compact stipulates that water can be drawn out in containers that hold up to 5.7 gallons, a boon for the water-bottling industry, which is largely unregulated. Water bottling companies are subject to laws that vary by state, limiting how much can be withdrawn yearly for “consumptive uses,” or those used to manufacture products. However, they don’t receive the same kind of scrutiny that other types of water diversion tactics do and there’s nothing to prevent a company from monopolizing water resources, critics point out (and in some states, legislation that restrains companies is minimal).

For example, the Nestle corporation, which taps into Michigan springs to create at least 70 varieties of bottled water, has been the center of debate because, “Without any public input or environmental impact assessment, the multinational was given a 100-year contract to pump 1,600 acre-feet of spring water a year and a seemingly unlimited amount of groundwater,” according to information posted at worldwaterwars.com.

Unlike other water uses, bottled water doesn’t return to the lakes. Also, in terms of quality, tap water must adhere to stricter guidelines.

Each state, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, is approaching the compact in various stages. Some are more or less prepared to meet the compact’s conditions. In Minnesota, which has long been hailed as a leader in water management, restrictions on water uses are already more stringent than those laid out in the agreement, said New Hope senator Ann Rest, who authored the state senate version of the bill.

The bill went mainly uncontested among state legislators because, “It didn’t call upon us to make any more changes to come into compliance with it,” she said.

States that don’t have established water management policies are lagging behind, but she said she expects others will follow suit in the coming years. While some estimate that approval from each of the states could take only a few more years to achieve, others have said that in some states, legislation might never pass.

A flawed deal?

Critics of the compact claim it doesn’t go far enough to protect the basin’s sought-after waters; others argue that it diminishes individual states’ power to act on certain issues; or that it “hoards” precious water resources that should be accessible to everyone.

Dave Dempsey, who lives in St. Paul and formerly served on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, said the compact is flawed – pointing mainly to the provision that allows water to continue to be withdrawn and bottled by corporations – which he called a gaping loophole. “It’s important that it be a compact that promotes water conservation and tries to stop exports. It won’t succeed if it arbitrarily says small water bottles can leave the Great Lakes Basin. It turns the lakes into a commercial product,” he said. “We’re losing control of the Great Lakes.”

Currently, 10,000 gallons per day or one million gallons each year is taken from Lake Superior in Minnesota, according to information from the Minnesota DNR. The Eagan-based Coca-Cola plant is the state’s largest bottler of water for various products.

Under the compact’s regulations, as much as five million gallons can be withdrawn from individual lakes over a 90-day period, per state. Kent Lokkesmoe, who leads the water division at the Minnesota DNR, said levels of withdrawal in the state are “well below the thresholds and to reach them is doubtful.”

He said the compact gives individual states the flexibility to stiffen laws for bottling water, irrigation and other consumptive uses. The compact lends strength to what had otherwise been an informal understanding between the states and provinces that lie along the Great Lakes basin.

“A big advantage is that it’s an enforceable agreement. Right now, the existing charter presents a nonbinding good-faith agreement. This is essentially a contract between states,” Lokkesmoe said. “We had to negotiate something that everyone can live with.”

Anna Pratt is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.