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Great Lakes pact: one step forward, one step sideways

Lost amid the media hubbub about the governor of New York was a newsworthy moment for legislation more than eight years in the making that affects all Great Lakes states.

A few days before he took early retirement, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. Incoming New York Gov. David Paterson also confirmed his support for the agreement.

The Great Lakes Compact would prohibit arid states — or almost anyone else — from withdrawing Great Lakes water, while existing diversions and other agreements would be honored. Water conservation programs would be implemented by each state.

The lakes are the largest source of fresh water in the world and supply drinking water to about 35 million people. In recent years, water levels have reached historic lows, particularly in Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, adding to the urgency of the issue. The agreement would create a council consisting of the eight governors and two Canadian premiers.

The compact takes effect after all eight states ratify it and the U.S. Congress consents. Minnesota was the first state to sign on, in early 2007, and Illinois and Indiana have also approved it. The legislation is working its way through the Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania legislatures. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec are participating via a separate agreement, and federal approval was not needed in Canada.

Odds still good
At about the same time the compact was signed in New York, the Wisconsin state senate passed the bill by a large margin, but the state assembly adjourned before considering it. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a supporter, said he will call a special session to pass it if the votes can be lined up.

“I still think the odds [for passage in 2008] are very good,” said Dave Dempsey, communications director for Conservation Minnesota and author of the upcoming book “Great Lakes For Sale.” “I can’t believe the Wisconsin leadership would be so foolish as to not go along with the compact.”

Republicans in the Wisconsin assembly objected to a provision that would allow any Great Lakes governor (as a member of the council) to halt a request to siphon water, saying it gives one state too much control. Other critics have called it a water grab, and some environmentalists do not like the exception that allows for limited export of water in containers of 5.7 gallons or less. A diverse group of conservationists and business organizations have supported the legislation.

Earlier efforts to pipe Great Lakes water to western states or parts of Canada had gone nowhere, although a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study in the drought of the early 1980s considered recharging the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains with Great Lakes water. The eight states began work on the Great Lakes compact in 1999 after a Canadian company proposed shipping water to Asia.

 

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