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Great Lakes water would be protected from large-scale diversion under a draft agreement unveiled Monday by the governors of eight states and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec.

The unprecedented compact is considered the most comprehensive water-quality initiative in a generation. It is designed to protect not only the quality of the water, but also the water levels across a vast region of North America.

The measure's roots reach to 1998, when an Ontario company won permission to let tankers ship more than 150 million gallons of Great Lakes water a year to Asia. The permit was later rescinded following an international uproar.

But the issue served as a wake-up call to the region's leaders that their water supply -- representing 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water -- could be a target for diversion.

The agreement calls for strengthening efforts to conserve water not only in the Great Lakes, but also the lakes' vast basin of rivers, streams and ground water. It creates standards for how much water can be diverted and gives the states and provinces significant powers in determining the future uses of Great Lakes water.

The measure not only limits water use, but requires those diverting water in some cases to return an equal amount of water -- and in a cleaner state than they got it.

The measure comprises two deals -- the binding interstate compact and a non-binding international agreement between the states and Canadian provinces. It is designed to give Great Lakes states broader legal standing to halt future efforts to divert water, making it prohibitively expensive for the water to be transferred away by pipeline or other means.

Plan requires political process

The deal is "a giant step forward" for protecting the Great Lakes, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said in announcing the draft agreement.

The measure requires the approval of Congress -- which is not a certainty, given the political sensitivities of water issues in some regions of the nation -- and state legislatures.

A preliminary version of the pact was signed in 2001 during a gathering in in Niagara Falls, where the premiers of Ontario and Quebec and the governors of the eight Great Lakes states -- Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- agreed to create a binding agreement for lake diversion and conservation by this year.

Gov. George E. Pataki said Monday's deal "will enhance water management policies and ensure Great Lakes waters, water-dependent natural resources and our diversity of water uses are sustainable for generations to come."

The public has 90 days to comment on the plan. On Sept. 14, Niagara Falls will host the region's only scheduled public hearing. The Council of Great Lakes Governors will also hold public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 8 in Chicago and on Sept. 20 in Toronto.

By spring, the governors are expected to sign the final document that will be submitted to Congress and state legislatures.

Under the compact, current water use is grandfathered. But it establishes strict standards for private and public entities that want to use significant amounts of water.

Following the 1998 controversy over water shipments to Asia, the Great Lake governors sought new standards on who gets the water. Currently, any one governor from a Great Lakes state can veto a plan for a large diversion. However, this is a non-binding arrangement. "We are very concerned about having a water-management system in place that will withstand legal challenges" to international trade treaties or other events, Ohio's Taft said Monday. The plan calls for unanimous approval by all the Great Lakes states and provinces for any proposal to divert a daily average of 1 million gallons. It also gives priority to water users closer to the lakes.

For users within the Great Lakes basin drawing 5 million gallons a day would require a supermajority -- 6-2 -- of the governors. Lesser amounts would be subject to individual state approvals.

The plan "is a way for decisions to be made in a way that is based on science and good practices, as opposed to what one governor can simply say is or is not going to happen," said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.

Environmentalists say New York State could be among the biggest beneficiaries of the agreement because it is located downstream from the other states.

Power resources also conserved

"A lot of this funny stuff will happen upstream, like Lake Superior. What happens there is more likely to have an effect on our water levels than something that happens here," said David Higby of Environmental Advocates, a coalition group.

The five Great Lakes contain more than 6 quadrillion gallons of water. But experts note it is a system that can be upset.

Higby noted that the New York Power Authority generates about 17 percent of its energy through hydropower, and that a small drop in Great Lakes water levels can impact the amount of power produced.

"It's not that we're being greedy or selfish, but that all the governments are accepting a mutual responsibility to protect healthy water levels as well as water quality," Higby said.

Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator of Great Lakes United in Buffalo and an advisory board member who helped shape the plan, emphasized its urgency. He pointed to such issues as climate change, water shortages and an erosion of political power by Great Lakes states.

"Potentially -- and that word is very important -- this is the most important environmental protection initiative in the region for the last 20 years," Gilbert said.


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