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Who gets to drink from the Great Lakes?

May 10, 2016

Water has become the 21st-century equivalent of oil, and a plan to divert water from the Great Lakes to surrounding areas is raising questions about the possibility of future water grabs from far-flung water-sparse regions. Over the course of seven years, policy makers, lawyers, and elected officials from each of the Great Lakes states and provinces crafted the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

Passed by Congress and signed into law in 2008, it was lauded as a model agreement by industries and environmentalists alike. The Great Lakes compact expressly prohibits diversions out of the basin. But there are exceptions. According to the compact, water returned to the basin must be equal in quality to the water taken out; diverted water will be allowed only if there is no “reasonable” alternate water supply available; a comprehensive water-conservation program must be in place; and the diversion must not affect the “integrity of the Basin ecosystem.”

Critics cite major flaws in the proposal: The congressionally approved Great Lakes compact could face future challenges, and even possible revisions, as issues of water quality and scarcity grow more critical, according to Nick Schroeck, director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic at Wayne State University. What’s to stop legislation to allow water diversions to entire states, or entire regions? “With slower population growth than other parts of the country, the Great Lakes states will have less power and influence in Washington, D.C., where Congress could potentially bend to the wishes of the more populous, and water-hungry, Southern and Western states,” Schroeck said.