COULD the Great Lakes be drained? Sitting on the shore of Lake Erie, a lake so vast that we cannot see the other side, it seems unimaginable that it could shrink perceptibly, let alone disappear. Yet the Aral Sea in Central Asia, once the fourth-largest inland sea in the world, had its shoreline recede by roughly 25 miles due to ill-considered diversions.
Humans have proven to be disturbingly effective at making seemingly limitless resources vanish.
Small numbers of our distant ancestors, using nothing more than stone-age tools, helped to bring about the extinction of a host of huge, powerful mammals such as the saber-tooth tiger and the woolly mammoth. A hundred years ago the passenger pigeon, flocks of which once filled the skies for days on end, disappeared.
Closer to home, Ohioans eliminated 95 percent of our original wetlands in just over 200 years.
If we have learned anything from these episodes, it is that even vast resources are vulnerable and require proactive efforts well before their limits appear in view.
That's why the Great Lakes Basin Water Compact is being created. If adopted, the Compact would regulate major efforts to siphon Great Lakes water for use somewhere else. It would ensure first, that the need was truly dire, and second, that water will not be taken out of the lakes without the consent of the people who would be most seriously impacted.
The Great Lakes Basin Water Compact should be ratified by each of the states bordering the lakes.
These eight states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York) would pay the price for water being moved out of the basin. While these states wouldn't actually pick up the tab for water transfers, they would bear the burden in a number of ways.
Reduced water flow would directly impact the businesses and agriculture that depend upon that water. A decrease in wetland health would lead to a drop in water quality and in the ability of those wetlands to resist floods. The states would also pay with a greatly lessened waterfront quality, and a lessening of recreational opportunities like fishing, hunting, and bird watching, vital and considerable parts of all eight basin states' yearly incomes.
Imagine the effect of siphoning 100 million gallons of Great Lakes water out of the lakes every day, water destined for Southern California or Nevada. Even short-term transfers would noticeably impact the lakes' ecosystems and the economies that depend upon them.
The Great Lakes Basin Water Compact aims to make sure that any decisions impacting the Lakes take place under full public scrutiny, protecting the rights of affected citizens. It is a well-thought out, binding plan that establishes a clearly defined process under which decisions about these types of water use will be made.
As good a plan as it is, the Compact could be greatly improved through the addition of a few small refinements.
One or two transfers of 100 million gallons a day would have considerable impact, but a large number of small water withdrawals have the potential to be equally significant.
The Compact acknowledges this in the definition of "cumulative impacts," but there is currently no mechanism for reviewing these small withdrawals and diversions with the larger scope in mind.
By including a process for determining the cumulative impacts of numerous small withdrawals on local rivers and groundwater, the Compact could be improved.
There is more fine-tuning to be done.
By including non-governmental groups in the decision-making process, the Compact would add more stakeholders with expertise and ability.
By making the findings of the Compact Council available to the public, public trust and approval would be enhanced.
By setting standard data of water health and an inventory for each body of water, managers would have baseline standards from which to judge the condition of the Great Lakes' waters.
And by measuring conservation programs, the Compact can ensure that ecological improvement is actually taking place.
Finally, the emergency use exemption for water transfers must be more clearly defined. There should be no doubt about what conditions apply when water transfers are authorized for "emergencies" that excuse compliance with the Compact.
The Great Lakes Basin Water Compact's big-picture concept for determining and approving withdrawals and diversions from the Great Lakes Basin is the right approach. It aims to ensure that the Lakes' ecology is protected and improved upon while at the same time meeting emergency needs with swift, fair, and inclusive review.
It is an impressive document that, with only some minor tweaking, could be a model for creating water resource management with broad-based support around the world.
The Compact can be improved with a few basic changes. It needs to be adopted and implemented quickly, while the Great Lakes in their full present form remain ours to protect.
Jerome Tinianow is executive director of Audubon Ohio, the state office of the National Audubon Society.
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