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Members of the Council of Great Lakes Governors signed an agreement Monday that members say they hope will make removing water from the lakes more difficult.

Although the newly signed Annex to the Great Lakes Charter is nonbinding on the eight states and two Canadian provinces that touch the lakes and its waters, the governors said they hope it will provide a blueprint for a binding agreement that they want to have ready by 2004.

"Hopefully we can compress (that period of time)," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said. "Some of us want to move more quickly than that."

The governors spent 18 months and absorbed 10,000 comments from interested parties before coming up with an agreement that Gov. George E. Pataki said will "allow us to protect the water quality and volumes in the Great Lakes while at the same time allowing us to move forward with economic renewal."

The final agreement, signed in a meeting in the Niagara Reservation visitors center, does not contain a provision, included in earlier versions, that would have allowed removal of up to 1 million gallons of water a day. That provision was opposed by environmentalists who felt it might open the gates for further, larger diversions.

"Clearly, every drop of Great Lakes water proposed for diversion or export out of the basin, we would be having a conversation about," Michigan Gov. John Engler said.

Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes United, the Buffalo-based lakes watchdog organization, called the elimination of the minimal-diversion provision "a complete victory."

"After the pummeling they suffered at the 1 million-gallon level, if it comes back, it will come back with stricter criteria," Gilbert said.

An Ontario company's 1998 proposal to ship water from Lake Superior overseas exposed weaknesses in the previous set of international agreements governing the movement of water outside the Great Lakes, which contains 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water.

It also prompted efforts by the council, working with Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, to strengthen those agreements.

But international trade pacts complicated the picture by making an outright ban of water removal possibly illegal.

Still, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the governors and premiers could restrict water movement outside the basin in the name of preserving the ecosystem by claiming to protect an exhaustible natural resource.

The annex, therefore, calls for establishing a conservation-based standard for the governors and premiers to use when reviewing requests from outside the basin for Great Lakes water. Such a standard would mean improving conservation within the basin to fend off demand for it outside the basin.

"By way of this annex, we are charting a course that talks about future water resource improvement," Engler said.

But with an abundant source of fresh water, Great Lakes communities have not embraced conservation.

Gilbert said the United States and Canada use water at twice the rate of other developed countries and that "it's totally reasonable to suspect the Great Lakes region is worse than that because a lot of other places (in North America) already have conservation initiatives."

He added, "There's good reason to believe the people in the Great Lakes basin may be the most wasteful users of water in the world, and that's not a good position to be in when you're requesting other parts of the world to conserve so they don't need our water."

Upon his election Monday to replace Ridge as chairman of the council, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft laid out a framework for the negotiations that many hope will produce a binding agreement within three years.

Taft said he would establish both a Water Management Work Group to work on the details of an agreement and an advisory group consisting of interested nongovernmental parties.

"That's exactly what he needs to do," said Gilbert, who described himself as "more optimistic than when I walked into the meeting."

Three governors -- Frank O'Bannon of Indiana, George Ryan of Illinois and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota -- did not attend the session, but had already signed the agreement.

The final agreement will have to be approved by all eight Great Lakes states, Quebec, Ontario and the U.S. and Canadian governments. Pataki said he believes an agreement can be reached that will be satisfactory to all.

"I'm not going to say it's not difficult," he said. But, he added, "We have an overriding common interest, and that is what really brings us together."

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