Rivers and Lakes

The Great Lakes Compact: Helping Fresh Water Flow

“Some people think we have too much water, other people say it’s never enough, but I’d say for aquatic ecosystems it’s ‘just right.’”

Rich Bowman, chair of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Public Policy Task Force

By Melissa Soule

When Congress passed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact in October 2008, the news rippled across the Great Lakes region, but was hardly a drop in the bucket of global — or even national — media coverage.

But the compact was big news for nature: an agreement to set the framework for determining if water could be diverted from the Great Lakes — the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

And the compact sets the stage for the Nature Conservancy and other groups to begin having discussions with state agencies on ways to better manage these globally significant water resources in ways that recognize and protect biological functions.

“It’s like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’” said Rich Bowman, chair of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Public Policy Task Force.

“Some people think we have too much water, other people say it’s never enough, but I’d say for aquatic ecosystems it’s ‘just right.’ The compact helps ensure that we maintain that ‘just right’ balance.”

Forcing People To Think About Their Freshwater

Some critics questioned why such an accord was needed in the wettest part of North America, a place where water seems to flow in abundance — often causing problems with flooding, not droughts.

But it’s precisely because the area is soaked in H2O that the compact was needed. Too little water, or too much water, can lead to problems affecting hydrology, drinking-water quality, agriculture, infrastructure and a host of other headaches.

So the bi-national, legally binding compact sets the framework for regulating any potential large water diversion. And, according to Bowman, it forces policymakers and think a lot deeper about how to take care of this globally significant freshwater resource.

Individual Water Decisions Made by the Region’s States

However, the compact does not dictate how U.S. states or Canadian provinces in the region would make decisions to allow or deny a water-diversion application to a corporation, an individual or a far-away state.

So each state is responsible for establishing its own procedure for determining a detrimental or beneficial water withdrawal. In Michigan, the management system developed to comply with the compact is based upon a biological response model nicknamed “the fish curve.”

The law requires any person or entity that wants to withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day must first utilize an assessment process to ensure that the use will not adversely impact water-dependent natural resources such as fish.

Bowman served on a team appointed by Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to develop a statewide management program that considers the biological communities supported by water and sets a precedent for determining the effects of water withdrawal.

“This management system is not designed to stop water withdrawals — it’s designed to protect natural resources and species that depend on those natural resources,” says Bowman.

“And sometimes a proposed water withdrawal may have to be modified or relocated in order to ensure that the natural resources are protected.”

Science Plus Policy Equals Action

But this law only applies to Michigan; the other states all have to adopt their own management protocols, and may or may not follow Michigan’s “fish curve” model.

Policy experts such as Bowman will work with scientists at The Nature Conservancy and conservation partners to take the knowledge garnered by scientists to inform elected officials and local communities.

Bowman is hopeful that other states will follow the Michigan model and put practical water management protocols into place that benefit both human and natural communities.

“This is the proactive concept of ‘Protecting Nature, Preserving Life’ in action,” he says.

Melissa Soule is a Michigan-based marketing manager for The Nature Conservancy.


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