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Binational commission says efforts to prevent Great Lakes water diversions are working

When a Canadian businessman floated an idea in the late 1990s to ship hundreds of millions of gallons of Great Lakes water on tankers to bone-dry areas of the world, people living around the globe’s biggest freshwater reservoir grew worried about losing their lakes.

So Great Lakes states and provinces in the United States and Canada devised strict rules to prevent that from ever happening.

So far, even as the world’s population continues to grow and drought areas widen, the two countries have succeeded in preventing diversions of Great Lakes water, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Joint Commission.

“You could call it a report card on the region’s efforts to stop diversions over the last 15 years,” said David Dempsey, the U.S. policy adviser for the commission. “The grades are positive.”

But the threat may never go away.

That’s why the binational advisory commission charged with protecting

the shared waters between the U.S. and Canada recommended building redundancies into the Great Lakes Compact between the two nations by adopting a policy declaring that waters of the Great Lakes are held in “public trust.”

What that means, according to Dempsey, is that the basin’s waters are “owned by the public,” and that governments “should have to protect them on behalf of the public.”

“The public trust framework would be a back-stop if the compact was ever challenged,” Dempsey told The Buffalo News.

It’s an idea that has support from the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a regional advocacy organization.

“It is a law that is available for all citizens to use and it is strengthened further by using it to establish precedents,” said Nate Drag, watershed project coordinator from the Alliance’s Buffalo office, in a written statement. “On the other hand, the public trust doctrine only functions if governments diligently apply it, and if citizens use it.”

The commission in the late 1990s was asked by U.S. and Canadian officials to consider issues affecting the Great Lakes, chiefly water consumption and diversions from the watershed.

Those remain important issues, and also timely given the request from a Wisconsin city outside of the watershed to use Lake Michigan water for its municipal supply.

The report released Tuesday urged both countries to:

• Strengthen protections against diversions;

• Develop methods to improve water use and consumption estimates in the basin;

• Use state-of-the-art science when coming up with strategies to deal with climate change;

• Employ public and private collaboration to repair infrastructure, promote innovation and encourage water conservation.

“What is described in this report is, for the most part, a good-news story,” the report states. “But both ongoing management vigilance and additional scientific advances will be required to maintain that positive momentum.”

Jessica Owley, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, agreed that managing the impacts from climate change will be paramount.

“Climate change absolutely needs to be at the top of the list of considerations for the Great Lakes,” Owley said.

Owley said changes in climate can alter everything from lake water quantities to land uses in the watershed, particularly agriculture.

“That could lead to increased withdrawals for irrigation,” Owley said. “Or, it could lead to increased run-offs into the water from animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides.”

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, called the compact “an important tool” to ensure the future protection of the Great Lakes, but warned that it, like any law or policy, is subject to challenges. So ongoing commitments from both government and citizens to protect the Great Lakes and its watershed are essential, Jedlicka said.

“Whether it be water scarcity in California, toxic drinking water in Flint, Mich., or the Great Lakes diversion application in Waukesha, Wis., we cannot ignore the impact that state government decisions have on our public trust resources,” Jedlicka said.

Waukesha, a community of more than 70,000 located about 20 miles west of Milwaukee, seeks to divert just over 10 million gallons every day from Lake Michigan. The water would be recycled back into the basin.

The commission took no position on the request.

Although outside of the Great Lakes watershed, Waukesha is located in a county that straddles it, making it eligible under a compact exception to access water if governors from all Great Lakes states unanimously agree to permit it, with input from Ontario and Québec.

Waukesha’s application has sparked controversy from some opponents. They say it could open the door to more siphoning from the Great Lakes.

The compact may give Great Lakes’ states veto power to deny applications, but Drag said that “if each state has this power, it is important that each state also treat the water it is holding in trust for its citizens with great respect.”

“It may become harder to reject ... requests of communities for Great Lakes’ water if we are dumping untreated sewage into the lakes or if we use the water irresponsibly,” Drag said.

Great Lakes governors have until Feb. 21 to review Waukesha’s application before a public meeting. According to reports, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hasn’t stated his position on the issue.