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Act on water compact An Earth Day reminder: Great Lakes are great resource that needs protecting

You don't know what you've got till it's gone. Or, at least, until you've made a multistate, cross-border effort to make sure you don't lose any more of it than absolutely necessary.

Getting a handle on what we've got, and what threatens it, is the point of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which Sen. George D. Maziarz, D-Newfane, and Assemblyman Bob Sweeney, D-Lindenhurst, have placed before the New York State Legislature for ratification. That approval needs to come as soon as possible, so the business of protecting that crucial natural resource can get the attention -- and legal underpinning -- it needs.

The Great Lakes, you should get used to hearing, hold 20 percent of the world's fresh water -- 95 percent of the fresh water found in the United States. A good number of North America's major cities -- Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee -- are where they are because those lakes provide water for domestic and industrial use, transportation and recreation. At least, they used to.

But the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines an imperfect but frighteningly plausible forecast that Lakes Ontario, Erie, Michigan, Superior and Huron will significantly recede in the coming years. Existing docks and harbors could be left high and dry, severely limiting the lakes' role as a carrier of cargo and as a fishing and boating playground.

Even more devastating is the risk that, as the lakes drop but people keep pouring toxins and garbage into them, the ability of the natural systems to neutralize, or at least dilute, those poisons will be choked off. The result: drinking water that must be pumped farther and treated more.

The Great Lakes Basin, of course, is not the only area facing water shortages. With inland water supplies expected to decline due to changes in weather patterns, and the arid portions of the country recently having the greatest population booms, it becomes even more important to protect the remaining water from demands to export or otherwise use it in ways that diminish the supply.

The idea of exporting water to other parts of the country, or of the world, may seem fantastic. But as many population centers face serious water shortages, it may become worth someone's while to move large quantities of water from the New York shore to Kansas fields, Nevada resorts or even Chinese factories. That's a long way, but anything's possible if people are willing to pay.

Federal law already prohibits the export of Great Lakes water without the unanimous consent of the affected states -- New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But that law could be changed, and there are concerns that it lacks the kind of due process provisions to stand up in court.

The proposed compact among those states, plus the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, would strengthen the legal soundness of a general ban on water exports as well as develop long-term conservation plans that recognize the lakes as irreplaceable environmental infrastructure, not a crop to be harvested.

With careful attention, the Old Rust Belt could become the New Water Belt, an attraction for people and business that the Sun Belt states will never be able to match.

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