CHICAGO - Even in the water-rich Great Lakes region, the days of unlimited access to the resource could be over.
“There will be no uncontested future water withdrawals in the Great Lakes basin,” Russell Van Herik, of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, predicted yesterday at a major conference attended by 650 people from 30 countries.
He spoke at DePaul University's Lincoln Park campus during a joint symposium by the International Association for Great Lakes Research and the International Lake Environment Committee.
Mr. Herick and others have been concerned for years about the possibility that some of the region's water someday could be diverted to other parts of North America or shipped to other parts of the world despite the enormous costs that make such ideas seem remote.
Mr. Herick is executive director of a multi-state agency that governors formed to help fund Great Lakes research.
“We are seeing some conflicts. More states are paying attention to water use,” said Dick Bartz, an Ohio Department of Natural Resources official who has advised Gov. Bob Taft and Ohio DNR Director Sam Speck on the issue.
Fearing a showdown could be inevitable as global water shortages become more acute, the region's eight governors and two Canadian premiers met in Niagara Falls, N.Y., two years ago this month to start working on a plan intended to head off such threats by tightening legal loopholes.
But to meet the test of international trade law, officials feel they need to prove water is being used conservatively within the region itself. They went beyond merely requiring that future users do no harm to the lake ecology by proposing that a benefit be achieved.
The proposal, called Annex 2001, has drawn mixed reaction from major industries as well as sprawling bedroom communities just outside the basin that might not have access to clean ground water. It is expected to be finalized and sent to Congress in 2004.
While Mr. Herik pointed out yesterday that there is “no crisis in the Great Lakes right now,” he said the governors and premiers are trying to head off the kind of situation that has been draining the former Soviet Union's Aral Sea since the 1960s.
“They're spending capital trying to get in front of a crisis that is happening to the Aral Sea,” he said.
The Aral Sea is a fraction of what it once was because of over-irrigation.
“The present situation is like what it was in medieval times,” Dr. Nick Aladin, of the Russian Academy of Science, told conference attendees. He said it could someday look like the Dead Sea in Israel.
Some 600 scientific presentations are being made at the conference, several of which explore the dynamics of the Maumee River and western Lake Erie.
Scientists said they can't yet explain why Lake Erie's central basin became so depleted of oxygen that portions of it became known as a “dead zone” two summers ago. But they said similar conditions appear to have existed for years to varying degrees and that the so-called “dead zone” can shift from year to year.
They have blamed zebra mussels for many of the ecological impacts on Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. But they said there is no evidence that the thumbnail-sized mollusk - a species from the Caspian Sea that came over in the ballast water of foreign ships in the late 1980s - is solely responsible for the dead zone.
Officials said, however, they are keeping an eye on the unexplained increases in phosphorus the Maumee River has had since 1997. The nutrient, which typically gets into the river via farm runoff and sewage discharges, helps algae grow.
One type of algae that has been making a comeback is a toxic form known as microcystis. It has the same toxin that killed dozens of people in Brazil in the mid 1990s. That type of algae was seen in Lake Erie's western basin a few years ago for the first time since the 1970s. It now can be found on the east side of the lake as well, officials said.
The conference began Sunday night and runs through tomorrow.