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Published: Saturday, 11/3/2001

Taft stresses need for regional control of Great Lakes

He said, as chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, he will hold the region's eight states and two Canadian provinces accountable to a pledge their leaders made this summer to prohibit large-scale diversions and bulk exports of the water.

Regional control of the lakes is “imperative,” given the Sun Belt's thirst for water and the number of seats that part of the country is picking up in Congress, according to Mr. Taft, one of several speakers at a conference titled “The National Water Crisis: A Great Lakes Response.”

The two-day event, sponsored by the University of Toledo college of law, drew 300 people.

On June 18, Great Lakes governors and premiers agreed in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to work out a binding document that would prevent large-scale diversions and bulk exports of the water. They gave themselves until 2004 to do so, at which point any such interstate compact would have to be ratified by Congress and Canada's Parliament.

But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have shifted government schedules and priorities, causing some speculation over whether governors and premiers will be able to stick to their timetable.

Plus, there will be turnover: Michigan Gov. John Engler is leaving office at the end of 2002 because of term limits. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also was part of the Niagara Falls agreement, is now in President Bush's cabinet in the new position of Homeland Security Director.

Other gubernatorial changes could occur, depending on the outcome of the 2002 elections.

Mr. Taft said he will use his role as chairman of the governors' council to make sure the region's eight states and two provinces do not stray from their commitment for a binding agreement on diversions and exports.

“This is a high priority item for Ohio. We are going to press hard with the other states,” he said.

The ongoing debate between state and federal control of the lakes was one of the themes of the law school's conference.

Ownership has never been fully played out in court. But the stakes are high if it is, because Sun Belt states appear to stand a greater chance of tapping into the lakes if water is perceived as an issue of national security, officials said. One of the biggest tools Great Lakes governors have to control the destiny of the lakes is veto power for diversions that Congress authorized them under the 1986 Water Resources Development Act. Any one of the Great Lakes governors has the ability to veto a major project for the entire basin.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), who preceded Mr. Taft as Ohio governor, said it's important to have control of the region's lakes. “I think the governors have a much better handle on the needs of their residents than us in Washington,” Senator Voinovich said.

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