GREAT LAKES AT A GLANCE
Lots of water
· The five lakes cover an area nearly the size of Oregon.
· The lakes' water could cover the contiguous states to a depth of 9 feet. Commerce
· 67,000 jobs
· $5 billion annual incomeRegional recreation
· 16,000 miles of shoreline
· 3.7 million registered boats
· 18,875 campsites
· 329 boat rampsShips
· Largest are 1,000 feet long
· Cargo weighs up to 70,000 tons
· Crews range from 21 to 27 peopleCargo
· Ships carried 103.8 million tons of cargo between U.S. ports in 2005. Sources: Great Lakes Information Network, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Transportation Department
Great Lakes compact at the center of great debate
The Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin gets half its water from the Great Lakes and half from underground wells that are tainted with radium, a radioactive element.
The city of 38,500 has a simple solution to its water problem: draw more water from Lake Michigan, 10 miles away. That probably won't happen.
New Berlin may look like a typical Midwestern suburb, but it's really a border town - on the edge of the Great Lakes watershed - and the west side of town is on the wrong side of the water slope.
A new multistate agreement working its way through state legislatures builds a legal wall around the largest source of fresh water in the world. The deal would ensure that no Great Lakes water is ever shipped outside the region - not in pipes to Arizona, not in ships to Asia, not even to Madison, Wis., or Columbus, Ohio.
The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact was signed last December by the governors of the eight states that border the lakes - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York - and the premiers of the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The agreement requires approval of state legislatures before it is sent to Congress for final approval. Ohio's Legislature is expected this week to become the first to approve the pact. New York's may approve it later this month.
"This is not a water grab," says Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "It's a commitment to protect a resource in the face of climate change and other challenges."
The Great Lakes contain nine-tenths of the nation's fresh water and supply drinking water to 30 million people in Chicago, Toronto, Buffalo and elsewhere. The lakes are an economic engine and the cultural centerpiece for much of the upper Midwest. But the fragile ecology of the lakes has suffered from pollution, invasive species of fish and the diversion of water to support Chicago and other cities.
The new agreement would control who can use the water and how much. The eight states started work on the compact in 1999 when a Canadian company proposed shipping water in tankers from Lake Ontario to Asia. Other proposals had been floated over the years about piping Great Lakes water to Arizona, western Canada or elsewhere.
"We realized there was nothing legally to prohibit that kind of project or something similar," says David Naftzger, executive director of the non-partisan Council of Great Lakes Governors, which supports environmentally responsible economic growth.
The states and provinces reached a voluntary water deal in 2001, then spent four years trying to agree on language that could be put into law.
The compromise agreement lets "border communities" such as New Berlin apply to use Great Lakes water if they meet tough standards.
Limiting who gets the water Sunny Slope Road is the dividing line in New Berlin. One side of the road has access to all the Great Lakes water it needs. The other side can't get a drop without approval from the state and probably every other state, too. Michigan and environmental groups already have objected.
"It's such a political thing, I doubt it can happen," New Berlin utilities supervisor Rick Jackson says.
His city is under a federal order to reduce the radium in its west side water. The city will probably spend $4 million on a treatment plant to reduce the radium - a naturally occurring substance found in the area's deep well- instead of getting more water from Milwaukee, which supplies the east side of town.
The water agreement was possible because environmentalists, business groups and political leaders agreed on one thing: Nobody outside the region should get Great Lakes water.
"If we want sunshine, we'll move to Arizona," says George Kuper, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries. "If they want water, let them move to Michigan."
Water rights advocate Terry Anderson, director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., says it's a mistake to lock up Great Lakes water inside the watershed.
He says water rights should be allocated and traded in the marketplace, even if that means shipping water to Asia at the right price. "It's no different than shipping out cars or iron ore," he says.
Great Lakes water is a powerful economic development tool for industry and tourism in a region that is suffering economically from the decline in the auto industry and other manufacturing businesses.
"Fresh water is our ace in the hole," says Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a multistate agency that organizes policy among the states. "If it got to be a humanitarian crisis, I personally might look at letting some water leave the region. But short of that, the water stays here."
Business groups, environmentalists and regulators have practical reasons for locking up the water. Levels in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are near historic lows.
The Great Lakes' depths have fluctuated by 4 to 6 feet for the past 4,500 years and the three largest lakes are near the bottom of that range, says Roger Gauthier, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Commission. Lake Superior entered a drought in 1998 and is at its lowest level in 80 years.
This hurts fishing, hydropower electricity generation, tourism and shipping. Freighters can't carry as much cargo in shallow water. Some islands no longer are surrounded by water.
The big concern: Is the low water level caused by global warming? Warmer winters spur evaporation because the lakes are covered less often with protective ice and snow. "I haven't heard anyone say yet that it's climate change, but we're near record lows, so it makes you wonder," Gauthier says.
An imperfect deal Not everyone is thrilled by the water agreement.
"The idea of the compact makes a lot of sense, but it got screwed up a little at the end," says Linda Woggon, a lawyer for the Ohio of Chamber of Commerce. "The last draft had a tiny word change that will make it nearly impossible for any major new development to occur."
The last-minute change says new water withdrawals can't cause a significant change to the quantity or quality of Great Lakes water or any of the rivers or streams feeding into it, Woggon says.
She says the result would mean automatic rejection of a steel plant that wanted to open in the Great Lakes watershed, employ 500 people and use 1 million gallons of water a day.
The business community wanted a balancing test that weighed the value of the new factory or housing development against the environmental impact on the lakes.
Despite these misgivings, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and other business groups support the deal. They are asking state legislatures to add separate language when approving the compact that interprets the agreement in a less restrictive way. The Ohio bill under consideration has these changes.
Some environmentalists are unhappy, too. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation opposes the agreement because it puts no limit on the amount of bottled water for consumers that can be withdrawn from the lakes and streams.
"If you fill a truck with water, you have to follow the rules. But if you put the water into bottles less than 5.2 gallons, you can take as much as you want. That makes no sense," says Terry Swier, president of the group, which has sued Nestlé's Ice Mountain water-bottling operation in Stanwood, Mich., for taking water from Sanctuary Springs in the watershed.
But most environmental groups signed on to the compact.
"This sets up a decision-making process and standards," says Cheryl Mendoza, manager of water conservation at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, "so we can take care of water in a responsible way." By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
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