The Great Lakes Charter Annex: A Solution

The Great Lakes Charter Annex: A Solution

Commendably, to strengthen our ability to protect the Great Lakes from harmful withdrawals the Great Lakes governors and premiers have proposed an annex to an existing agreement called The Great Lakes Charter, which is a voluntary agreement through which the Great Lakes States and Provinces cooperatively manage the waters of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Charter Annex is the first step in developing standards to regulate water withdrawals that are objective and non-discriminatory and that protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. An effective Great Lakes Charter Annex will regulate water withdrawals in a sustainable manner and actually restore the Great Lakes and its resources. According to legal analysis requested by Great Lakes governors, basing the law on ecosystem protection and restoration will provide a strong legal defense to withdrawal proposals that could endanger Great Lakes ecology. The Great Lakes Charter Annex has the potential to revolutionize the way we regulate water use.

The Great Lakes Governors and the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec signed the Great Lakes Charter Annex on June 18, 2001 in Niagara Falls, New York. In the Annex, the Governors and Premiers outline the framework for a set of binding agreements and established a series of principles for a new standard for reviewing proposed withdrawals of Great Lakes water. Within this framework are principles that, once defined, will be used to review new proposals to withdraw water from the Great Lakes Basin.

These principles are:


  • Preventing or minimizing water loss in the Great Lakes Basin through return flow and implementation of environmentally and economically feasible water conservation measures;
  • No significant adverse individual or cumulative impacts to the quantity or quality of the waters and water-dependent natural resources of the Great Lakes Basin;
  • An improvement to the waters and waterdependant natural resources of the Great Lakes Basin; and
  • Compliance with the applicable state, provincial, federal, and international laws and treaties.


Challenges of the Great Lakes Charter Annex

The challenge now is for Great Lakes governors, businesses, civic organizations, municipal water providers, and other interests to come together and define the principles into standards that are fair, predictable, and protective of the Great Lakes. The standards should embody the following goals:


  • Any water withdrawal must – with no compromise – result in a tangible “improvement” to the Great Lakes ecosystem. To simply offset a water withdrawal with something that results in “no harm” or “no net loss” of ecosystem health does not protect the resource. Requiring an improvement accomplishes two things. First, it leads to sustainable water use in the basin and means that water withdrawals could produce a net benefit to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Second, it helps ensure that water withdrawals are a last resort;
  • Ensure comprehensive and equal participation of Native American Tribes.
  • The Great Lakes states and provinces retain decision-making authority, with some checks and balances by the federal government to ensure that states and provinces don’t engage in “back scratching” for water;
  • Decision-making standards must be flexible to reflect environmental conditions. For example, standards must provide increasing protection if global warming results in less rainfall to the Great Lakes;
  • Restrictions must apply to all Great Lakes waters, including its rivers, streams, and even groundwater, not just the lakes themselves; and
  • The Great Lakes are a national and even an international treasure. Congress needs to do its part to fund research and management efforts under Great Lakes Charter Annex.


What are the Next Steps for the Great Lakes Charter Annex?

The Council of Great Lakes Governors is working to define the principles in the Great Lakes Charter Annex by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders and experts including industrial, municipal, environmental, agricultural, governmental and other representatives to provide input. Within the next few months this draft will be released to the public followed by a comment period. There will be public hearings throughout the Great Lakes Basin where people can relay their support, concerns, or suggestions for the Council of Great Lakes Governors to consider when finalizing the Great Lakes Charter Annex.

Once the Great Lakes Charter Annex is finalized, the Great Lakes states will likely enter into an intra-state compact, a law between multiple states authorized by the United States Congress, to make the Annex legally binding between the eight Great Lakes states. How this will become a legally binding mechanism between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec is still not determined. However, there has been a commitment made by the governors and premiers to finalize and implement the Great Lakes Charter Annex by 2004.


What can you do to Help Protect the Great Lakes?

To strengthen our ability to protect against future water export and diversion proposals, we need to make water conservation and ecosystem protection the basis of the region’s water use laws. With demand for fresh water increasing around the country and the world, we need to practice what we preach-water conservation – in order to defend our Great Lakes from harmful diversions.

The United States uses more water per capita than any other nation in the world, up to 4.5 times as much as some European countries. You can start protecting our Great Lakes today by educating others and making small changes that help conserve water in your home and garden.

Additionally, when the Great Lakes Charter Annex draft is released for public comment, let your voice be heard! Share your support or concerns by attending and speaking at a public hearing or sending written comments to the Council of Great Lakes Governors. Your comments or support will help shape how the Great Lakes Charter Annex will manage, restore and protect the Great Lakes for future generations.

If you would like to receive notice of the public comment period or for more information about the Great Lakes Charter Annex, contact Cheryl Mendoza at or toll-free at 1-866-850-0745.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.