Saving the Great Lakes: Eight States and Two Canadian Provinces in the Great Lakes Watershed Are Working to Protect This Important Resource

Article excerpt

We don't call them "great" for nothing. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario make up the largest body of fresh water on the planet and provide drinking water for 42 million Americans and Canadians. There's enough water in the Great Lakes to cover the contiguous states nine feet deep.

Some 162 million tons of dry bulk cargo--iron ore, coal, stone, grain, salt, cement and potash--are shipped through the lakes every year. Some 20 percent of U.S. manufacturing takes place in cities along their shores. The Great Lakes area generates $5 billion a year in shipping business and $4 billion in the sport, commercial and Native American fishing industry.

All that makes the infrastructure, health and environmental protection of the Great Lakes a priority not only for the governors and legislators of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also for the president and members of Congress, the leaders of Quebec and Ontario and businesses in the United States and Canada.

The fragile ecology of the lakes has suffered from pollution, invasive species and water diversion projects. Restoration initiatives prompted President George W. Bush to call the Great Lakes a "national treasure," when signing an executive order three years ago that called for a regional collaboration. Governors, legislators, mayors of cities and towns and tribal leaders--l,500 in all--united to identify the most critical needs facing the Great Lakes. Canadian officials participated as observers. The result, the Great Lakes Strategy, outlines recommendations for actions to be taken over the next five years to restore and save the lakes.


The Council of Great Lakes Governors worked on an additional priority--developing a multistate agreement to control who can use the water and how much of it. The main goal of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is to make sure that no Great Lakes water ends up in a swimming pool in Phoenix or on restaurant tables in some far away place like Asia. It has been signed by the governors of the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes and the two Canadian premiers. Next it must be approved by all eight legislatures and then by Congress.

This session, the compact is wending its way through the area's legislatures for approval.

"It is critical for the states to ratify the proposed compact to protect the Great Lakes from the thirsty states and thirsty nations who covet our water," says Michigan Senator Patricia Birkholz. "The compact provides a well-coordinated and uniformly supported plan to protect the Great Lakes from diversion."

Minnesota passed the first legislation in February. Senator Ann Rest, sponsor of the bill, says the compact gives the Great Lakes states the opportunity to set the standards for water withdrawals as a region and to prohibit use by those outside the basin. At the same time, the individual states can set their own conservation programs, Rest says, acknowledging that current Minnesota law is tougher on water-management than the agreement.

"We will have joint sovereignty in this initiative and joint responsibility, but we can individually have stronger state protections."

Senator Rest and other proponents believe the compact will help protect the delicate ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior is of special concern. Its level at the beginning of the year was the lowest in 81 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Lakes Michigan and Huron are also at historic lows. All the lakes have suffered from sewage contamination, invasive species of aquatic plants, fish and mussels, and the diversion of water to support large cities around their shores.

The governors of all eight states have thrown their support behind the agreement even though, in some cases, portions of their states could be hurt. …