Governments on both sides of the Great Lakes are acting to prevent or limit bulk water removal from the cross border waterways.
Siphoning water for export is one of the most significant threats facing the lakes. Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Superior and Lake Huron are already under pressure from climate change and industrial, agricultural, and municipal misuse.
Projections of climate change effects on the Great Lakes indicate a possible two-foot (36 centimeters) drop in average water levels within 30 years.
Three consecutive warm, dry winters have led to the waters of Lake Superior dropping two feet below the long-term average for February to their lowest level since 1926, according to information released by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The five lakes provide drinking water to more than 25 million people in the U.S. and Canada and contain almost 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water. Their size alone is attractive to companies wanting to export fresh water, and industries seeking to harness power by either diverting lake water or draining wetlands.
These threats appear to have galvanized Canadian and U.S. authorities. In the U.S., governors from the eight Great Lakes States announced a proposal, Tuesday, that would tighten restrictions on use of Great Lakes water.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, the Canadian government reintroduced amendments to the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act (IBWTA) that will prohibit the bulk removal of water from Canadian boundary waters, including the Great Lakes. The amendments were originally tabled in 1999 but failed to make it through parliament before Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien called an early election last fall.
Canada's parliament passed the IBTWA in 1911. It implements the 1909 Canada-U.S. Boundary Waters Treaty, that establishes principles and procedures for preventing or settling disputes, particularly regarding the quantity and quality of boundary waters between Canada and the United States. More than 300 lakes and rivers straddle the Canada-U.S. border.
In Canada, the prohibition on removals will apply principally to the Great Lakes and other boundary waters, such as the international sections of the St. Lawrence River and Lake of the Woods in Ontario and the St. Croix and Upper St. John rivers in New Brunswick.
Aside from the prohibition, the amendments will establish a licensing regime for boundary waters projects such as dams, obstructions or other works.
"These amendments will protect the Great Lakes from bulk water removal under federal law," said John Manley, Minister of Foreign Affairs. "We are taking a decisive step to ensure that this critical freshwater resource is protected for future generations."
The Canadian amendments are the last step in a three-part strategy announced in February 1999 to prohibit bulk water removals from all Canadian water basins. Prohibition was favored over an export ban because of potential challenges that could be made under international trade agreements. If water is protected from removal, the issue of exporting does not arise.
The amendments allow exceptions to the prohibition for short-term humanitarian purposes and water used in the production of food or drinks.
South of the border, the Council of Great Lakes Governors is proposing new restrictions on the use of water from the Great Lakes. The Council is a non-partisan partnership of the governors of the eight Great Lakes states - Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It formed in 1983 to tackle environmental and economic challenges and has since included the Canadian premiers of Ontario and Quebec in its membership.
Under its latest proposal, homeowners, municipalities, farmers and businesses would not be allowed to start pumping, or increase their pumping, of Great Lakes water or any lake, river or groundwater from the Great Lakes basin unless they could meet four new tests.
Bottling plants, beer makers, and power plants would be among the businesses affected.
The proposal could also affect whether those outside the Great Lakes basin could use Great Lakes water. It recommends new criteria for a potential exporter to meet, including:
• Withdrawal of water would not cause significant adverse impacts.
• Withdrawal of water would result in improvements to the water and water-dependent natural resources.
• Withdrawal of more than one million gallons of water a day would trigger a review before permission was granted.
• The water diversion would have to be the only practical alternative available, and would have only minor impact.
• The state involved must have water conservation policies in place.
An exporter would have to meet these requirements to receive approval by all eight states and Quebec and Ontario.
The Council has invited public comments till February 28 on the proposal. If all eight governors agree to it, the proposal will be enshrined in an international treaty or in national law. The eight Great Lakes states would then revise their water management law to carry out provisions in the agreement.
These initiatives follow last year's International Joint Commission (IJC) report that concluded that the ecological integrity of the Great Lakes needed protection.
The IJC is a binational organization established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. It assists the Canadian and U.S. governments in managing waters along the border for the benefit of both countries.
The IJC's report emphasized that removals and diversions of water from the Great Lakes basin represents a permanent loss of water, and must be managed differently from uses of water within the basin.