Apr 03, 2007

Ontario to Introduce Bill to Protect Great Lakes Water Quality

Legislation designed to better protect water in the Great Lakes will be introduced in the Ontario legislature.

The Canadian Press has learned that the Ontario government was successful in persuading the American states involved in the plan to agree to much tougher rules than were originally outlined.

The bill to be introduced Tuesday will implement a deal signed in December 2005 between Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement.

The agreement strengthens the ban on water transfers out of the Great Lakes, which will prevent parched states elsewhere in the U.S. from raiding the huge freshwater lakes for their own needs.

It will also allow provinces and states bordering the Great Lakes to seek a judicial review of water diversion and withdrawal decisions made by their neighboring jurisdictions.

The Ontario sources say the legislation shows a willingness on the province's part to take the lead on cross-border environmental issues instead of waiting for federal governments to act.

Quebec's National Assembly has already ratified the agreement, but hasn't yet updated its water use laws. All three of the province's major parties are considered supportive of the water agreement, so the Liberals' loss of their majority in last month's provincial election shouldn't threaten the deal.

Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are the U.S. signatories.

Environmental advocates had complained that the Sustainable Water Resources Agreement benefited developers rather than the public, and did not adequately address intra-basin diversions -- the legal transfer of water from one lake to another as long as it stays within the Great Lakes basin.

There's been little research on the possible negative effects of large transfers in the basin. Environment Canada forecasts a 3- to 4-foot drop in water levels for some of the Great Lakes over the next 50 years due to climate change.

Minnesota was the first state to ratify the deal, which easily cleared its House and Senate in February. But enabling legislation awaits action in many other signatory states.

In Michigan, House and Senate bills have been introduced to ratify the pact, which Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm supports.

The Illinois House approved the deal 115-0 and supporters were optimistic about the Senate, where a vote is expected soon.

The compact got off to a good start in New York when approved by the Assembly in 2006. But it went nowhere in the state Senate because many senators were unhappy that it lets citizens sue government agencies over alleged violations, such as permitting excessive water withdrawals.

The Ohio House approved the compact last year, but it bogged down in the state Senate when conservatives said it would infringe on state sovereignty and property rights.

A special committee in Wisconsin is seeking common ground on a number of issues before bills are introduced to approve the compact.

The water protection pact has had little impact in Pennsylvania, where the only part of the state adjacent to the Great Lakes is a 40-mile stretch of Lake Erie frontage in the far northwestern corner.