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The Cuyahoga River:

No more fires, but now a shortage of clean water

August 7, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Associated Press, AP
  Rapid urbanization and the growing demand for water challenge the Cuyahoga River as it flows to Lake Erie.

In the 1960s the Cuyahoga River was the national poster child for the country’s severe lack of modern clean water laws. The river, which flows through northeast Ohio, had a 33-year history of catching fire due to the extraordinary amounts of pollution and floating debris choking its waters. Since then, improved water quality standards have helped to partially cleanse the river. But the Cuyahoga is still a poster child: It dramatically demonstrates the pressing need for better safeguarding Great Lakes water quantity.

Great Lakes governments last approved a large and steady water diversion in 1998. That is when Akron, Ohio, a city within the Great Lakes Basin, received permission to sell its municipal water from the Cuyahoga River — which flows into Lake Erie — to expanding suburban areas outside the basin.

The project fueled growth in water-strapped communities. But it decreased already low water levels in the Cuyahoga, diminished its water quality, and largely ignored legitimate
citizen concerns. Several communities that value the river for fishing, boating, and enriching urban areas sued to end the diversion. The legal struggle demonstrates that existing laws do not give citizens tools that can protect their local water from ill-advised diversions.

“Most people understand how the Clean Water Act has helped to improve the water quality of the Cuyahoga River,” said Robert Heath, director of the Water Resources Research Institute at Kent State University. “But the City of Akron has developed a water supply system that benefits its residents and several out-of-basin communities at the cost of in-basin communities and the wildlife of the Cuyahoga. We need water management practices that protect the flows of our rivers and keep Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes Basin.”

Existing Laws Fall Short
Map courtesy of National Wildlife Federation
  Click to Enlarge

The Cuyahoga vividly demonstrates a problem requiring immediate attention: Legal protections from unrestrained water uses, including exports, are weak or nonexistent throughout the Great Lakes region.

The Great Lakes Charter, which eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces signed in 1985 in order to manage the world’s largest supply of surface fresh water, provides some general guidelines for removing water from the basin. The non-binding charter requires prior notice and consent among all the Great Lakes governors for any new or increased withdrawal that exceeds five million gallons per day. The U.S. Congress embraced these principles in the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986.

However, legal experts warn that new, international trade agreements erode the federal law’s authority. With climate change threatening to redistribute water around the globe, ongoing urbanization altering the basin’s water cycle, and population growth promising still more thirsty people, the problem worsens every day.  Local decision-makers need rules based on efficiency and environmental improvement to guide future water use policies.

Unless more steps are taken, water use conflicts will continue to spread across the basin until the arrival of what many see as the ultimate specter — wholesale diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin’s natural boundaries. Private companies have in the past proposed to ship Great Lakes water to China.

Conserve, Protect, Improve
The ten U.S. and Canadian governments surrounding the Great Lakes signed an agreement in June 2001 to ensure that these and other 21st-century pressures do not drain the region’s economy, environment, and quality of life. That agreement, the Great Lakes Charter Annex, offers a framework to help guide the water use decisions of individual states and provinces toward a common goal: Protecting and enhancing Great Lakes waters, including local water supplies and the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the freshwater ecosystem.

“Our Great Lakes provide us with a seemingly endless supply of our most fundamental need — water,” said Ohio Governor Bob Taft when he signed the Annex. “The steps we commit to in signing the Annex today will help ensure that the Great Lakes will remain a truly great asset available for recreation, job creation, and basic sustenance far into the future.

“By preserving, restoring, protecting, and improving the Great Lakes,” the governor added, “we are working to guarantee enough water for business use, residential growth, and a healthy environment that encourages people to relocate to the Great Lakes region.”

The visionary principles of the Great Lakes Charter Annex remain non-binding, however, despite broad public support for a comprehensive system of rules to evaluate water withdrawal projects, safeguard supply, and protect freshwater resources such as the Cuyahoga River.

Ohio and other Great Lakes governments must absorb the agreement’s modern water use principles — conservation, do no harm, and improvement — into local law, make the standards legally enforceable, and ensure robust water supplies for future generations. Leaders have committed to doing so by June 2004.

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