Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher said yesterday the Great Lakes region may have to decide in less than a decade whether to sell water to other parts of the country that need it.
Saying that his and Gov. Ted Strickland's first priority is to protect and conserve the world's largest body of fresh surface water, Mr. Fisher left open the question of whether it would be wise to make the water from the Great Lakes available to other states and even to other countries.
"I think it's fair to say that we're going to see in the next decade states and other countries looking for ways to get access to our fresh water supply and we're going to have to make some tough decisions about whether we want that to happen and, if so, how," Mr. Fisher said, in response to a question.
"Eventually we'll have to determine if, when, and how we would best respond to other states who have a water shortage and need some of ours," he said.
The lieutenant governor, who is also the director of the state's Department of Development, was a key speaker at an economic development summit held at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center in Oregon. The event drew about 45 participants from Lake Erie counties from Lucas to Ashtabula.
Later in the day, a spokesman for Governor Strickland said, "We do not support selling water from the Great Lakes."
"It's one of the reasons that we support the Great Lakes Compact so that these decisions would be made regionally not unilaterally," said Amanda Wurst, who is the deputy communications director for Governor Strickland.
Mr. Fisher said a top priority that he and Governor Strickland share is passage of the Great Lakes Compact, now awaiting action in the Ohio Senate. The proposed compact attempts to close legal loopholes created by changes in international trade laws.
The selling or diverting of water from the Great Lakes system is a sensitive political subject, as some politicians have discovered who have sailed into that channel before.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson created a stir in October when he told the Las Vegas Sun's editorial board that the Great Lakes is "awash in water" and could help quench the arid Southwest's thirst.
And in 2001, President Bush infuriated Canadians by telling a group of foreign journalists he'd be happy to import Canadian water if it were ever for sale.
Great Lakes governors passed a nonbinding agreement in 1985 to unify the region against the possibility of large-scale diversion of water to the Southwest. The following year, Congress passed the federal Water Resources Development Act, giving each Great Lakes governor veto power over a diversion project.
The vulnerability of those measures was exposed by a Canadian firm called the Nova Group in 1998, when it was able to secure a permit to ship tankers filled with Lake Superior water to Asia. It relinquished the permit without ever doing so.
Governors responded by proposing the Great Lakes water compact that calls for the eight Great Lakes states to form a regional body to manage water withdrawals. It has been ratified by four of the eight Great Lakes states. Ohio, which took a lead in writing it while former Gov. Bob Taft chaired the Council of Great Lakes Governors from 2001 to 2005, has not yet approved it.
Despite the proposed compact, there is precedent for large water withdrawals.
Chicago has been diverting water out of Lake Michigan since 1848. The existing flow rate was set by the Supreme Court in 1930. Congress passed a bill during Dwight Eisenhower's presidency to triple the flow, but Eisenhower vetoed it.
In 1959, Newfoundland engineer Thomas Kierans intrigued some power brokers with a grandiose plan to divert water out of Lake Huron via a system of canals and hydrology projects, including a 100-mile dike between Canada's James Bay and its salty Hudson Bay. Even back then - nearly 50 years ago - it would have cost $79 billion.
Global water researcher Peter Gleick has said the Great Lakes region can never be lulled into complacency, no matter what the expense, because moving Great Lakes water over long distances is technologically possible.
The International Joint Commission - a binational goverment agency the United States and Canada established in 1909 to resolve conflicts over their shared boundary water - said in a report several years ago that more large-scale withdrawals from the Great Lakes could hurt the region's economy and ecology.
In an earlier report, the same commission said there was once "considerable concern" about using the Great Lakes to replenish the massive Ogallala Aquifer that extends through parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.
Mr. Fisher made his comments during a question-and-answer session following his speech in which he emphasized Ohio should view water as its greatest asset.
He responded to a question from Bill Monaghan, an Erie County commissioner, who said he was in Arizona recently and heard someone say that they were going to be able to buy Great Lakes water.
Starting by saying that the next speaker to follow him knows more about the subject than he does, Mr. Fisher observed that states in the Southwest have enjoyed great economic times, but they lack access to water.
"And so there is increasing concern and debate as to whether we will be approaching the time in the next decade when other regions ... attempt to divert water from the regions that have it," Mr. Fisher said. "It's why a Great Lakes Compact is being discussed and debated now and why it's so important.
"That is not to say that the Great Lakes region some day might not make the public policy decision that we need to help our brothers and sisters around the country," Mr. Fisher said. "We can't be selfish. But first we need to protect and preserve the asset and at least have some sort of mechanism by which we make those decisions in the future years."
He said he was not aware of any current plans to sell water, but said it could be in the forefront of the national agenda in five, six, or seven years.
Later, he said it's "premature" to talk about diverting or selling water but it's not premature to talk about how to protect the regional resource.
Asked if selling Great Lakes water is a possibility in the future, he said, "I suppose that's always possible in the future but that's not my first priority right now."
The following speaker, John Austin, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution think tank and a member of the Michigan State Board of Education, said the Great Lakes should develop and sell its expertise in the treatment and measurement of water, but not the water itself.
"I think our political leadership should rule it out," Mr. Austin said.
But he too left a slight opening in the door.
"I think we're going to see increasing pressure from developing parts of the country and the world that really shouldn't be developed because they don't have water to try to make deals to get some of ours," Mr. Austin said. "There's no reason to make a deal with Georgia or Las Vegas to give them more water unless and until they build in water measurement, water conservation, and related systems fundamentally into their businesses and into their municipalities."
Mr. Monaghan, who first raised the question, said he did not believe it would be advantageous to the economies of the Great Lakes states to sell water.
Sandy Bihn, an Oregon environmental activist, said Mr. Fisher is "just plain wrong."
"The water is gold. We ought to covet it and treasure it so that we attract more businesses and industries here. If they want it, they should come here," said Ms. Bihn, the Sierra Club's western Lake Erie conservation chairman and founder of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association.
Staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.
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