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Great Lakes may shrink Global warming and droughts in the U.S. could put a drain on both Erie and Ontario

If you're thinking that global warming might make Western New York a more comfortable place to live, think again.

Sure, the temperatures would be warmer, but in a mere 23 years, Buffalo could be bordered by a lake that is nearly two feet more shallow, thereby wreaking havoc on the shoreline, recreation and shipping.

What's more, the water that's left could be eyed jealously by parched regions to the south, where leaders might see the Erie Canal and Hudson River as convenient conduits for tapping Western New York's water supply.

That's the nightmare scenario environmental groups sketched out Tuesday in a report that examined the potential effects of global warming on the Great Lakes -- and that urged action at the state and federal level to bar water diversions.

Compiling scientific research into layman's terms, the report warns that the lakes are facing an unprecedented twofold threat from both global warming and the increased water demand prompted by it.

"The Great Lakes are facing the one-two punch of global warming and water diversion," said Noah Hall, an environmental law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and a co-author of the report. "We have known for many years that existing laws are inadequate to protect the Great Lakes from diversions and overuse. Now we know that climate change is certain to put additional stress and pressure on the Great Lakes."

The National Wildlife Foundation published the report, with the backing of Environmental Advocates of New York and five other environmental groups from across the Great Lakes states.

Based on the findings of researchers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Joint Commission, the federal government and independent researchers, the report extrapolates on the findings of scientists and puts them in both an environmental and political context.

Temperatures have been rising in recent decades, and the report concludes that some effects of that increase already can be seen in the region. For example, in Lake Ontario, warm-water fish species are becoming more productive, while species that traditionally flourished in the lake, such as walleye, are on the wane.

And that's just the beginning. Given that temperatures are expected to increase by as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit in the region by 2050 and even more after that, scientists predict that Lake Erie could be ice-free every winter by 2090, the report said. And that means the number of major snowstorms could increase.

Meanwhile, the Great Lakes are expected to evaporate far faster than they do now. And while overall precipitation is expected to increase, scientists predict it will come and go in deluges -- perhaps interspersed with drought, which would also contribute to lakes shrinkage.

"In some ways, Lake Erie, because it's a very shallow lake, is facing a bigger problem," Hall said. "This could really change the surface area and the shoreline."

More shoreline will be exposed, thereby making current lakefront properties less attractive, the report said. In addition, docks and marinas may have to be relocated, and ships may have to reduce the amount of cargo they carry to avoid scraping bottom.

And that would be just the beginning of the region's problems. Noting that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, recently suggested a national water policy -- and said "Wisconsin is awash in water" -- environmentalists fear that the parched Southwest and South could try to divert water from the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes states have a chance to prevent that by ratifying -- and getting Congress to ratify -- the Great Lakes Compact as soon as possible, environmentalists said.

The proposed compact is an eight-state agreement that would call for joint management of the Great Lakes. The deal also would ban new or increased water diversions either within the Great Lakes basin or to other parts of the country.

Momentum is building toward state legislature approval of the deal all across the region, including in New York, where the compact has widespread support. Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program associate at Environmental Advocates of New York, said the State Legislature could ratify the compact as soon as next month.

The challenge will be getting all the states and Congress to ratify the compact by 2012, when the 2010 census is expected to prompt a congressional realignment that will likely shift as many as 15 House seats from the Great Lakes region to other, drier parts of the country.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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