New York and nine of its closest friends have made a promise to one another that they will preserve, protect and defend the precious treasure that they either will hold in common or lose together.
It now falls to those partners to follow through with specific plans to protect the Great Lakes, that repository of bounty that sustains both the natural world and the economic life of its bordering states and provinces.
The five lakes may look inexhaustible to the normal eye. But, with so much of the world running short of fresh water, a since-defunct 1998 plan to ship hundreds of millions of gallons of Lake Superior water to thirsty customers in Asia was enough to frighten the affected states into doing something.
OK. So a 10-year turnaround doesn't exactly qualify as springing into action. But these things are delicate political challenges, because they must begin with discussions among eight states and two Canadian provinces, wend their way through all 10 legislative bodies, thence to Congress and, finally, to the desk of President Bush, who signed the Great Lakes Compact last week.
The lakes compact was a bottom-up process. It was approved by Congress and the president, as the Constitution requires for any multistate agreement, but not imposed by them. (Canada's looser form of federalism did not require central government approval for the participation of Ontario and Quebec.) That has both good qualities and bad.
The good part is that the compact was concluded only by governments -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan -- that share the need to preserve the water that resides in the lakes -- Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan -- and their connecting waterways. No deals needed to be struck, no loopholes necessarily carved, for the inclusion of Sun Belt states or Western provinces that might want a, well, leakier arrangement.
The bad part is, or might be, that the compact will primarily rely on the partners themselves for its observance and enforcement. Though standards are set and means of mediation and even judicial appeal are included in the compact, success will continue to rely on all 10 governments doing their part and keeping their promises.
The first part of keeping those promises falls to New York and each of the other signatories. They need to develop specific plans for the conservation and efficient use of all the water in the Great Lakes Basin.
In New York, the job falls particularly to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has until the end of this year to report to the Legislature on what actions, administrative and legislative, must be taken to begin implementation of the agreement.
By December 2009, all members are required to have their individual plans for meeting their common goal considered and adopted by the Great Lakes Council of Governors. After that, the plans are to be updated every five years, and any changes approved by unanimous vote.
All members of the compact have a common interest in preserving the Great Lakes as what will be, properly protected, an inexhaustible source of sustenance for living things and lively commerce. Each state, and each citizen, has an interest in seeing to it that the work is done. And, despite the long road to last week's celebration-worthy success, there is indeed still work to be done.