By Molly Flanagan,Water Program Associate, Ohio Environmental Council
The Great Lakes are one of the natural wonders of the world containing nearly 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water and supplying drinking water to more than 40 million people who live within its watersheds. It is the only freshwater system of its kind in size and ecological diversity and is essential to humans and wildlife alike; providing homes, food, recreation, and economic sustainability.
Despite their vastness, the Great Lakes are vulnerable to degradation and depletion. The Great Lakes are actually a balanced system. Rainwater and snowmelt replenish only about one percent of the lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers that make up the Great Lakes Basin and this is balanced by loss to evaporation and flow to the Atlantic Ocean. The lakes are largely a gift from the last ice age. The finite water in the lakes coupled with a growing demand for water by domestic users–including utilities, agriculture, manufacturers, and housing–and proposals to export water to other parts of the U.S. and to foreign countries, is a cause for concern.
Without stronger protections, the Great Lakes’water supply could be siphoned off and frittered away. The Great Lakes region has already seen massive water withdrawal and export proposals and is experiencing local water shortages. For example:
Current laws simply are not strong enough to protect the Great Lakes. In most US jurisdictions, there are no standards for how we use water or protect freshwater ecosystems from water withdrawals.Without stronger protections, the Great Lakes’ region could lose its valuable water resources. Better water management is necessary throughout the Great Lakes Basin to protect the waters that we depend on for life.
The Great Lakes Governors and Premiers, recognizing the seriousness of this challenge, signed the Great Lakes Charter Annex in 2001, commonly referred to as Annex 2001. The agreement established fundamental principles for management of Great Lakes water:
1. Preventing or minimizing water loss through return flow and implementation of environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation measures;
2. Preventing significant adverse individual or cumulative impacts to the quantity or quality of the waters and water-dependent natural resources of the Great Lakes Basin; and
3. Improving the waters and water-dependent natural resources of the Great Lakes Basin.
In the agreement, the Governors and Premiers committed to develop a binding agreement to apply these principles to all water withdrawals within the Great Lakes Basin, including tributary surface waters and groundwater.
The challenge now is for Great Lakes’ Governors, Premiers, businesses, environmental and conservation organizations, municipal water providers, and other interests to come together on legally binding standards that are fair, predictable, and protective of the Great Lakes. Great Lakes leaders have a responsibility to keep the region’s freshwater resources safe for future generations.
Last summer (2004) the Governors and Premiers released a draft of the Annex Implementing Agreements for a 90-day public comment period. Overall, these agreements were more protective than current laws, but they were not as environmentally protective as many organizations and citizens across the Basin had hoped. During the comment period, citizens flooded the Governors and Premiers with more than 10,000 comments from around the Basin.
The Governors and Premiers recently finished incorporating these numerous comments into new drafts of the Annex Implementing Agreements.While we have not yet seen these documents, we understand that portions of these new drafts are stronger than the previous drafts and other portions are weaker. Overall, the agreements are stricter on out-of-Basin diversions of water and more lenient on in-Basin uses of water. The Governors and Premiers are expected to release these new documents for a 60-day public comment period this Summer (2005) and hope to sign the agreements by the end of the year.
It will be critical that the Governors and Premiers hear comments demanding strong, environmentally protective standards in the agreements. GLAHNF will keep you updated about the upcoming comment period and will send out a postcard with local hearing locations as soon as that information is available. So,watch your mailbox and get ready to be a part of history in the making.This promises to be one of the most important environmental protection opportunities of the century, and we will need voices from all around the Great Lakes Basin to make sure that the promises of Annex 2001 are realized.