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Great Lakes water is too precious not to take every step to preserve it

Americans have been tuned in to two environmental disasters in the past year. The municipal water supply in Flint, Mich., was contaminated by lead while residents were assured there was no problem. In water-starved California, the historic drought is not over despite recent heavy rains.

These events show how much we should value our easy access to clean water.

News staff reporter T.J. Pignataro recently wrote about the Canadian businessman who in the late 1990s thought it would be a good idea to ship hundreds of millions of gallons of Great Lakes water in tankers to bone-dry spots around the world.

Alarmed at the possibility of their water being exported, Great Lakes states and provinces devised strict rules to prevent such a situation. Making the rules stick is now mission critical.

Despite persistent drought conditions in the United States and elsewhere, the two countries have succeeded in preventing diversions of Great Lakes water. Their successes are contained in a report released by the International Joint Commission, the body created to oversee a priceless resource.

Still, there is always a feeling that the threat of diversion will never go away as long as parched regions cast an envious eye on our abundant fresh water.

Pignataro reported that the commission wants to build new protections into the Great Lakes Compact between the two nations by adopting a policy declaring that the waters are held in “public trust.”

The words “public trust,” as David Dempsey, the U.S. policy adviser for the commission, said, mean that the basin waters are “owned by the public,” providing a framework for governments to oppose any threats to the Great Lakes. There are no absolute guarantees, though. Language can be slippery and it is almost impossible to know if that public trust will be upheld. Vigilance by the International Joint Commission and non-governmental watchdogs will be required.

The report offered suggestions for both the United States and Canada, including devising strategies to deal with climate change and enlisting public and private entities to repair infrastructure, promote innovation and encourage water conservation.

The report also wants still-stronger protections against diversions.

Waukesha, a community of more than 70,000 located about 20 miles west of Milwaukee, and just outside the Great Lakes watershed, wants to divert just over 10 million gallons of water every day from Lake Michigan.

It will be a difficult decision, and many more are sure to follow. The Great Lakes are a public trust. The sooner both nations recognize that, the better.