Water Use Issues Bubble to the Surface in the Lake Erie Basin

Water Use Issues Bubble to the Surface in the Lake Erie Basin

On August 18, 2003, citing growing threats to Great Lakes water supplies, conservation groups urged Ohio’s Governor Taft to pursue stronger legal protectons for Lake Erie and the Great Lakes. The groups want Ohio and all the Great Lakes states along with Ontario and Quebec to pass common laws for judging all new or increased water withdrawals and diversions from the Great Lakes drainage basin.

To punctuate their point, representatives of the Ohio Environmental Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the League of Ohio Sportsmen handed more than one thousand postcards and petitions to Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Sam Speck at the Ohio Statehouse. The cards and petitons call on Governor Bob Taft to help turn a set of voluntary principles agreed to by the Great Lakes states and provinces “into an enforceable law with no loopholes.”

“Without stronger protection, the Great Lakes’ vast water supply could be siphoned off and frittered away,” said Molly Flanagan, Water Program Associate of the Ohio Environmental Council. “Every day, more than four billion gallons of water is withdrawn from the Lake Erie drainage basin alone. We need Governor Taft to continue his strong leadership to press hard to protect the Great Lakes from foreign export schemes and unrestrained domestic use.”

As chair of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, Taft’s leadership is critical to broker enforceable standards to make the voluntary water supply principles agreed to in 2001 by the eight Great Lakes governors and two premiers of Ontario and Quebec legally binding. The principles, known as the Great Lakes Charter Annex 2001, are aimed at controlling in-Basin water withdrawls and out-of-Basin diversions.

The groups are pushing for Taft and his counterparts to develop effective standards that will protect all water users, from farms to cities, and fish to forests. The groups are calling for:

  • turning the general principles for protecting Great Lakes water under Annex 2001 into enforceable law with no loopholes;
  • applying protections to the entire freshwater system, incluidng groundwater and small streams that feed the Great Lakes; and
  • involving citizens, businesses and communities in decisions that affect their freshwater resources.

Holding one fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, the Great Lakes are actually a limited resource. Rainwater and snowmelt replenish only about one-percent of the lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers that make up the Great Lakes basin. The remaining 99 percent is finite and nonrenewable. That fact coupled with a growing demand for water by domestic users, including utilities, agriculture, manufacturers, housing developments, and exisiting proposals to export Great Lakes water to foreign countries and other parts of the United States, has conservation groups concerned about the Great Lakes’ future.

“Legal protections from unrestrained water uses are at best weak and at worst nonexistent throughout the Great Lakes region,” said Noah Hall, Great Lakes Water Resources Manager for the National Wildlife Federation. “Better water management is necessary to protect the people and wildlife that depend upon the lakes for their very livelihood. What affects one lake affects the entire system.”

The groups cite massive water withdrawal proposals and local water shortages in recent years around the Great Lakes as evidence that more protections are necessary, including:

  • In 1998, a private company called the Nova Group proposed to ship 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia in tankers. Ontario approved, but later rescinded the permit.
  • Water demand from uncontrolled housing growth surrounding Green Bay, WI and South Elgin, IL is outstripping available groundwater supplies.
  • Stone quarrying operations near Toledo, OH and Monroe, MI are dropping water tables and drying up nearby wells.

Careful management of the Great Lakes is especially important to Ohio. More than 11 million people depend on Lake Erie as the source of their drinking water. The lake is a center of commerce and industry, supporting agriculture, shipping, heavy manufacturing, and electricity generation. Lake Erie supports a multi-million dollar sports fishing industry and the Lake Erie shoreline contributes $2.5 billion a year in travel revenue to the Ohio economy – a third of all travel revenue in the state.

As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the most biologically productive but also the most ecologically sensitive of the Great Lakes. Protecting the lake and its interconnected system of streams and undergound aquifers is critical to its future.

“It’s not a question of whether there will be a water war, but when it will be fought. And more important, who will win,” said Larry Mitchell, President of the League of Ohio Sportsmen. “The Great Lakes are a world-class resource, and they deserve world-class protection.We need Governor Taft to do all he can to keep Lake Erie a truly great lake.”


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