Even though no large-scale diversions or bulk exports of Great Lakes water are in the works, this year's presidential candidates apparently have picked up on the region's sensitivity to the issue.
And the issue is likely to gain greater visibility as Ohio hearings on a new water diversion accord begin this week in Toledo.
President Bush on Monday pledged his opposition to Great Lakes diversions during a campaign stop in Traverse City, Mich.
He accused challenger John Kerry of waffling on the issue, which the Kerry campaign promptly disputed by citing Mr. Kerry's vote in favor of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. That law gave Great Lakes governors veto power for massive water withdrawals, following a 1985 accord that governors approved to collectively limit such diversions.
An updated compact called Annex 2001 was proposed three years ago to supplant those earlier agreements. A final draft is in its public-review phase.
Ohio's hearings on the draft start Thursday at the University of Toledo's College of Law Auditorium. One session begins at 2 p.m. and another at 6 p.m.
Additional meetings are 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Huron County Department of Job & Family Services, 185 Shady Lane Dr., Norwalk, Ohio, and 2 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife district office, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay.
George Kuper, spokesman for the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, said he is disappointed whenever he sees evidence of Great Lakes water getting politicized at any level.
Environmental activist Maureen Reilley of Toronto said she wasn't so surprised Mr. Bush seized the opportunity in Traverse City.
"Clearly, there are a group of people afraid [of losing Great Lakes water to another part of the country]," she said. "This election will be won or lost in the Great Lakes states They're looking for issues that speak to those states and the water issue apparently does."
Added Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes United, a coalition of environmental groups that has focused on the diversion issue for years: "I think it's telling that President Bush would raise this issue, in that the environment is not one of his strong suits. But diversion is a big issue to this region."
In comments reported by the Associated Press last week, Mr. Bush said wise use of resources "starts with keeping Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes basin," and quoted Mr. Kerry as saying earlier this year that the diversion issue would be "a delicate balancing act."
"Sounds just like him," Mr. Bush said, drawing laughs. "My position is clear - we're never going to allow diversion of Great Lakes water."
Kerry spokesman Rodell Mollineau said the Democratic nominee "has a long history of opposing any diversions of water from the Great Lakes" and voted to prohibit it as long ago as 1986.
Mr. Kerry was asked about the matter in February and made comments that "were not clear," but quickly emphasized his opposition to diversion and support for "protecting the integrity of the Great Lakes basin," Mr. Mollineau said, according to AP.
The longtime Great Lakes observers agreed Mr. Bush's decision to play the diversion card was somewhat puzzling, though, given the flak he endured for a passing remark he made about Canadian water in 2001.
According to an official White House transcript, Mr. Bush told a group of foreign journalists on July 17, 2001, that he would be "open to any discussions" about importing Canadian water to his home state of Texas.
He noted how water was practically more valuable than oil in some areas of that state when the price of crude had dropped to $10 a barrel a few years earlier.
The White House refused at that time to put Mr. Bush's remark into perspective, leaving journalists to wonder if it was a joke that was misinterpreted, a slip of the tongue, or something else.
Some of Canada's most prestigious newspapers fumed. The venerable Globe and Mail, one of Canada's largest national newspapers, proclaimed, "George W. Bush is at the door, and he wants Canada's water."
The effort to close loopholes on diversions was inspired by an Ontario permit that in 1998 was issued to - then subsequently withdrawn from - a consulting group in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., known as the Nova Group. That group obtained a permit to fill tankers with Lake Superior water and ship it to Asia. An uproar ensued, prompting the Nova Group to negotiate a deal to return the permit on the grounds it would retain first rights to export if permission was ever granted again.
The coalition of governors hired a legal team to research the ramifications of the case in 1999. Five years and a half-million dollars of legal advice later, the governors appear to remain convinced the region is vulnerable to exports because the North American Free Trade Agreement and other changes in international law could allow water to be viewed by some as a tradable commodity.
Great Lakes governors had reached an agreement among themselves in 1985 to curb diversions - although they neglected to include Canada's two Great Lakes provinces, Ontario and Quebec. That oversight was addressed in the proposed Annex 2001 follow-up agreement. The Great Lakes governors and premiers are expected to reconvene in the Niagara Falls area next spring to vote on the annex, after spending the fall and winter reviewing public comments taken through Oct. 18.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.