Great Lakes Water Diversion

 

(This 735th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 1, 2005.)

 

We have many problems in this region but we also have a world-recognized resource at hand, our Great Lakes. While the South and West are starved for fresh water, we seem to have a limitless supply.

 

Or do we?

 

A year ago Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk wrote a position paper titled "Political Diversions: Annex 2001 and the Future of the Great Lakes." For us living within the Great Lakes watershed, this is arguably the most important document ever written, yet I have met no one who knows it exists. In fact, I doubt if many readers have heard of Annex 2001, the compact entered into by eight states and two Canadian provinces to protect the Great Lakes Basin. I urge everyone to obtain and read Nikiforuk's position paper. It may be obtained from <www.powi.ca/nikiforuk_June2004.pdf>. In this column I will address only a few of the issues he raises.

 

According to Nikiforuk, Annex 2001 is not the protection compact that it purports to be. He describes it as "a water taking permit system" with the stress on "taking". It establishes the conditions that must be met before, to use his metaphor, users can "put a straw into Great Lakes waters."

 

The conditions water withdrawers must meet sound good. They must prove that there is no reasonable alternative or significant impact, guarantee a return flow, prepare water conservation plans, meet applicable laws, request only a reasonable quantity of water and agree to "resource improvement." Trouble arises, however, in their implementation. Annex 2001 comes with no associated management plan and a Council of State Governors decides on removals.

 

One critic of Annex 2001 calls it "a way to get to yes" on removal. Apparently seven of the eight governors (including ours) are pro-diversion. And without a mechanism in place, Nikiforuk poses this scenario: "a thirsty Wisconsin (outside the basin) will build a pipeline to Lake Michigan and an angry Michigan will then sue Wisconsin. The Supreme Court will appoint a federal marshal to resolve the issue. Given the shifting tides of political power in the United States (as the population moves from the northeast to a thirsty southwest) no one in the Great Lakes region wants to see that happen." This scenario could turn the Great Lakes from a regional to a national resource with little concern for its future.

 

Still worse, data suggest that, far from serving as a limitless resource, our Great Lakes are already endangered. While most of us agree that we should be anti-diversion, few of us recognize key water abusers within the system such as groundwater pumping, agricultural run-off and urban sprawl. We are arguably the world's most careless water users. Nikiforuk asks, "How can we curb demand outside the Basin if we cannot curb demand within?"

 

Even without outside withdrawals, the lakes are threatened. One projection of future within-basin use together with global warming is a drop in their water levels of three to five feet, a drop that would reduce Niagara Falls to a trickle.

 

Surely we should all be concerned.

 

Now factor in our local legislators studying the possibility of introducing a water bottling plant in this region.

 

Great idea? Hardly.

 

Nikiforuk cites the case of a Nestle (former Perrier) bottling plant in Mecosta, Michigan. A local group and several First Nations tried to stop this activity in federal court because it would compromise water levels and starve aquatic life in the region. Judge Lawrence Root of the 49th Circuit found for the plaintiffs, but Michigan waived the judge's stop bottling order, and Nestle exports about a million dollars worth of Michigan water a day. Nikiforuk says that the Nestle case "suggests that water will go to the most powerful bidder" and asks, "Can you improve a resource by taking more of it and then writing a check?"

 

I applaud former Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin for his characterization of bottled water as "the biggest rip-off the public has ever endured." Our free faucet water equals bottled water in quality and taste yet many local citizens spend the equivalent of half their annual taxes for it each year.

 

This is simply nonsense. We must protect our Great Lakes and we don't need this kind of straw -- in Michigan or here -- in one of the world's most valuable resources, a resource that just happens to be ours to protect.-- Gerry Rising