Industry poses threat to water usage limits

A Toledoan tries to find the wind during an outing on Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park near Oregon.
A Toledoan tries to find the wind during an outing on Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park near Oregon.

Great Lakes governors and premiers hope to strengthen regional control over the world's largest source of fresh surface water in the coming year to head off any proposals to divert water to other parts of North America or the world.

But the leaders of Ohio, Michigan, and six other U.S. states as well as the two Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes could find that the intensive legal maneuvering they began in earnest two summers ago soon will be challenged - if not downright obstructed - by industry.

“There's a great interest on industry's part of reopening all of this,” said George Kuper of the Council of Great Lakes Industries about an agreement known as Annex 2001, which attempts to limit water usage from the lakes to near-shoreline communities. The Ann Arbor-based council represents some of the region's largest employers.

Mr. Kuper claims state and provincial leaders were steered into the agreement by “bum legal advice” they received after a small company called the Nova Group made history in 1998 by securing a permit from Ontario to ship up to 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water a year for sale to Asian markets.

That amount would have been hardly a drop in Lake Superior's enormous bucket: The lake system loses more water than that to evaporation every 24 hours. But the Nova case triggered a precedent over water rights because it was the first time a permit had been granted for such a bulk transport or diversion.

Engineering studies have been done over the years to explore the possibility of diverting Great Lakes water to the arid Southwest and other regions - only to stop dead in their tracks because of political pressure and enormous costs.

Nova eventually relinquished its permit but not its right to renew its effort if such projects are ever sanctioned. The Annex 2001 agreement is a vehicle governors and premiers have chosen in hopes of keeping that scenario from being played out.

Officials began working on the document in 1999 after legal experts told them the Nova case demonstrated how vulnerable the Great Lakes could be to changes in international law, especially under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The experts warned that water - like oil and timber - arguably could be viewed as a tradable commodity on global markets.

Annex 2001 would update a 1985 nonbinding charter that Great Lakes governors had signed among themselves to limit water diversions and withdrawals. The new Annex document would include the premiers of Quebec and Ontario.

The 1985 charter - viewed by some experts as a “gentlemen's agreement” - was reinforced by Congress in 1986 with passage of a law that has more teeth, the Water Resources Development Act. It requires any diversion outside the Great Lakes to be approved by each of the Great Lakes governors.

The governors and premiers held a summit on June 18, 2001, in Niagara Falls to pledge that they would move forward with the annex. They gave themselves three years to work out details. A final draft is expected to be released for three months of public comment this fall, with the final signing expected by June 18, 2004.

Annex 2001 goes beyond simply putting limits on exports and withdrawals. The proposed agreement would require new users to return as much water as they take out, with the quality of what's returned resulting in a net-effect improvement on the system.

“It's more innovative than just `Do no harm,'” said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation environmental group.

But to Mr. Kuper, it's also vague. Taken literally, he said, it could inhibit large water users - such as large manufacturers or power plants - from building along the Great Lakes.

“If there's a question if you're ever going to get your water permit, you're not going to build your plant in the Great Lakes region,” Mr. Kuper said.

Russ Van Herik, executive director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, a $100 million endowment that Great Lakes states established years ago to help fund research, called Mr. Kuper's argument an industry scare tactic and said the annex will not impede new construction.

He said Annex 2001 is important for national leaders in Washington and Ottawa to know that lake-water usage issues can be resolved at the regional level. Control will become more important as the Earth's population continues to expand and the effects of global warming deplete fresh water supplies this century, officials said.

Mr. Davis pointed out that water rights are especially controversial in this part of North America because the Great Lakes are used for far more than drinking water or irrigation. They are vital to the region's manufacturing hub, as well as its tourism and the fish ecology that supports the recreation base of its economy.

“The issue is not if we are going to run out of water,” he said. “The issue is one of distribution - who's got it, who doesn't, and how it's going to be distributed.”

Frank Quinn, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist who has studied Great Lakes water levels since the early 1960s, said the idea of diverting Great Lakes water to the Southwest or even the closer, heavily-populated Northeast is not far-fetched.

“The Northeast is perennially short of water. It would be relatively easy to take water out of Lake Ontario and put it in the Hudson River,” he said.

Whether it's the Northeast or the Southwest, any pressure to divert water outside the region likely will come from the United States - not Canada - according to David de Launay, director of the lands and waters branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The country not only has vast water resources, but 9.5 million of its 11 million people live within the Great Lakes basin.

Canada wants nothing to do with any effort to “re-engineer the plumbing of North America,” he said.