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Secure the Future of Great Lakes Water

Protections from export plans and unrestrained water use are weak or nonexistent in the Great Lakes. The solution is a regional system of standards to protect and enhance the basin.

March 7, 2003 |

  Freighter on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Protections from export plans and unrestrained water use, however, are weak or nonexistent in the Great Lakes. That must change if farms, cities, and families hope to have enough water in the future. Per capita water consumption in the United States is more than four times higher than the global average. Water waste, along with pollution’s contamination of available supplies, now jeopardizes important public resources, such as the Great Lakes system of interrelated aquifers, streams, and lakes.

Time to Act
In 2001 Great Lakes governments took the first step toward protecting the region’s water from misuse when they signed the Great Lakes Charter Annex. The unprecedented agreement promises to enhance the basin’s economy and aquatic habitats with practical water use.

But state and provincial leaders must turn these visionary principles into concrete and binding standards before they actually will protect the basin’s water for the future. Leaders have committed to doing so by 2004. Meeting that deadline may be the region’s last chance to protect Great Lakes water forever.

The Need for New Protections
Many legal experts agree that current laws designed to protect the Great Lakes are limited. Under these laws, the region’s governments, they suggest, cannot respond to massive export plans by simply banning proposals to ship water from the basin.

Powerful international trade agreements may require Great Lakes states and provinces to treat requests that involve shipping water outside the basin the same as they treat local and regional withdrawals that keep water in the basin. In that case, all regulation of water withdrawals would need to apply equally to all users, whether that’s a proposal for building a water pipeline from Lake Michigan to the arid southwest or a power plant cooling intake in the basin that draws water from Lake Erie.

The solution is a regional system of standards that requires all users to protect and enhance the basin’s unique and interrelated system of water resources. Such standards can provide a fair and legally defensible regulatory foundation for Great Lakes communities — and make large-scale exports virtually impossible.

Great Lakes Charter Annex
The Great Lakes Charter Annex is the cornerstone of this regulatory foundation with its goal of basin-wide standards by which the region’s governments can judge all new or increased water withdrawals. The standards will be based on three key principles:
• Every new project must include all reasonably feasible water conservation measures.
• No new project can cause significant harm — individually or in combination with other projects — to the Great Lakes, their tributaries, or the people and wildlife they support.
• Every project must be designed to actually improve the Great Lakes and their tributary lakes, streams, and underground aquifers. Avoiding harm is not enough.

Next Steps
The challenge now is for the region’s governments to turn the amendment’s nonbinding principles into legal standards:
• The governors and premiers must develop comprehensive and enforceable standards to manage Great Lakes water effectively.
• State and provincial lawmakers also must enact legislation that puts these basin-wide standards into practice at home.
• This bi-national process may also require approval from the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
• The public must have the opportunity to participate in development of standards.

Thinking Ahead
Only by example and by consistent application of comprehensive standards can the region’s leaders, citizens, and businesses set the rules of the region’s water future.

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