Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Deadline Missed on Water Security Pact

Deadline Missed on Water Security Pact

Delay could spell trouble for international agreement to safeguard Great Lakes

July 1, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  An agreement to protect Great Lakes water is designed to counter powerful new global trends which have made clean, fresh water an increasingly scarce and valuable resource. A delay in making the agreement public could significantly reduce the political will to complete the pact.

Governors and Canadian premiers, who have been working on a far-reaching agreement to ensure that international trade agreements, diversions, and other 21st century threats do not drain the Great Lakes, missed a self-imposed deadline in June to open the water-security pact for public review, state officials have confirmed.

The missed deadline, say state executives and environmental leaders, almost certainly means even more significant delays in completing comprehensive safeguards for Great Lakes water, which has come under a new generation of risks caused by demographic, climatic, and geopolitical trends.

"We're not going to make it," said Matt Hare, the natural resources and environmental policy coordinator for Michigan's Republican Governor John Engler. "We've got 10 different jurisdictions and I could give you 10 different reasons why but we have a very challenging project and we have encountered a number of issues that have forced us to slow down and be more thorough."

The missed deadline affects the so-called "Annex 2001" agreement, an important new provision of the Great Lakes Charter, which the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces signed in 1985 to manage the world's largest supply of surface fresh water.

Work on the new provision to the charter began in 1998 to counter powerful new global trends, which have made clean, fresh water an increasingly scarce and valuable resource. Among them are international trade laws, which make it easier for private corporations to gain control of public natural resources.

Negotiators from the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces spent more than two years to develop a novel system for reviewing and approving water withdrawals. The proposed agreement is based on three key principles:

  • Conservation is good and should accompany future withdrawals.
  • A withdrawal should not - either individually or cumulatively - harm the Great Lakes ecosystem.
  • A proposed withdrawal should actually improve the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The governors and premiers agreed on these overarching principles in June 2001 - thus the name of the water security pact. They also agreed to make them more specific and present a more detailed proposal for public review by the end of June 2002. They wanted to formally adopt a revised agreement by November 2002, before gubernatorial elections in seven of the eight Great Lakes states alters the region's leadership and causes lengthy delays.

It is not yet clear how missing the June deadline will affect ratification of Annex 2001, said government officials and observers. Under the best case scenario, the delay provides negotiators more opportunity to develop an even more solid and legally defensible plan to guide future water use decisions, as well as build broad-based political and citizen support for its implementation.

"Annex 2001 is an astounding document," said Reg Gilbert, the senior coordinator for Great Lakes United, an international coalition founded in 1982 to preserve and protect the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River ecosystem. "The system it proposes for judging water withdrawals is quite good. It suggests the leaders are willing to do something that's never been done before. We hope the delay is just little glitches."

Under the worst case scenario, the change in state leadership and staff could diminish the collective sense of urgency to secure Great Lakes water, and cause drastic reductions in political will and momentum.

A prosperous future for the Great Lakes region, say experts, depends on clear and consistent rules to guide water use. In addition to the introduction of companies like Perrier, America's leading water bottler, fluctuating lake levels, changing climate cycles, increasing global demand for water, even raging fires in the drought-stricken American West provide motivation to get safeguards in place. The urgency makes it safer for leaders to take bold steps to secure an increasingly valuable natural resource.

"Hopefully this doesn't mean the process is losing momentum," said Sarah Miller, a water policy coordinator with the Canadian Environmental Law Association who has worked closely on Annex 2001. "This is a hugely important issue and if we fail to resolve it ourselves, others outside of the Great Lakes basin will resolve it for us. We must be proactive, not reactive."

It was intense public reaction to a proposed water diversion from Lake Superior that triggered the Annex 2001 process. The Nova Group, a Canadian company, received permission in 1998 to scoop 156 gallons of Lake Superior water each year and ship it in tankers to Asia.

The business venture - though ultimately turned away - highlighted the growing global demand for clean, fresh water and exposed how vulnerable the Great Lakes basin is to world water markets. It also encouraged leaders to launch a cooperative project to reform regional water use law.

Efforts to keep Annex 2001 on schedule, said state officials, have been slowed as budget shortfalls limit travel, summer vacations fill already busy schedules, and further analysis of Great Lakes science, culture, and politics reveal the complexity of the problem.

Those close to Annex 2001 say they hope the process will get back on track before the November elections. Representatives from industry, agriculture, and the environmental community still must reach consensus on several critical issues. They include:

  • Defining reasonable water conservation practices.
  • Determining how to make an agreement legally enforceable across the boundaries of eight states, two provinces, as well as the entire United States and Canada.
  • Deciding what constitutes an improvement to Great Lakes water.

"What we need is a series of two to three day negotiating sessions held every couple weeks for several months," said Mr. Gilbert of Great Lakes United. "That would get it done."

Negotiators next meet in late July in Chicago.

"Annex 2001 is not on the rocks yet, but we must be vigilant," added Ms. Miller. "People haven't realized that the world has come knocking on our door. And it will continue to knock until we make some significant choices and a serious long term commitment to protecting Great Lakes water."

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes issues and co-author of Liquid Gold Rush, a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute's office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org