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Understanding the Great Lakes Compact

In 2008, the governments of the eight states in the Great Lakes basin adopted the Great Lakes –St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Compact), which was recently ratified by the federal government to finalize the agreement. Rich Bowman, chair of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Public Policy Team, explains the impact of the Compact on the Great Lakes.

What is the Great Lakes Compact?
The Great Lakes Compact is a legally binding agreement between the eight Great Lakes states and the United States government, which allows the states to determine jointly how to manage the waters of the Great Lakes basin. Canada is a voluntary signatory to the Compact, but ultimately, only the federal government can make a legally binding agreement with another sovereign government. With its ratification, the Compact provides the framework for discussing management of our water resources in the Great Lakes basin in coming years. 

What does this mean to me?
The other important thing the states agreed to in the Compact was to establish regulatory and management systems for water resources to conserve and protect the water resources of the basin. To you in your hometown, this means that when someone in the basin is thinking about using a really large amount of water and taking it outside the basin, they have to use the water in a way that doesn’t damage the natural resources that depend upon that water.

Why should I care about this?
Water is fundamental to life as we know it. But, water is a finite resource, and without careful management this resource can be depleted, leaving human and natural communities in jeopardy. The Compact, and the regulatory regimes it asks for, force us to spend the time to understand how this resource actually supports life and manage it in a way it can continue to do that.

What does this mean to a company that uses water to make a product like juice, bottled water or beer?
It means the place where they’re getting that water from must be able to support that withdrawal of water and the water-dependant natural resources that currently exist at that location that depend upon that water. This management system is not designed to stop water withdrawals – it’s designed to protect natural resources, and sometimes, a proposed water withdrawal may have to be modified or moved to a different location in order to ensure that the natural resources are protected.

So, does that mean that there will be water “hot spots” where it’s good to draw lots of water from?
Probably not. What it’s more likely to mean is that there will be a few locations around the state that can’t sustain many more water withdrawals than are already happening there.

Is water a commodity like oil?
No. Oil doesn’t rain from the sky. The water we withdraw from the ground is just a small part of a much larger global water cycle. It’s also important to recognize that we don’t consume water, we use water. A human being drinks about a gallon of water a day. A gallon of water weighs almost 10 pounds. If that water didn’t fairly rapidly pass through our bodies and back into the environment, we’d all turn into huge water balloons. The same holds true for all living organisms on the planet. The challenge with water is that on average, there isn’t any global water shortage, but if you’re thirsty and you’re at a place where there isn’t anything to drink, you’ve got a pretty serious water shortage.

Was the Compact made to save us from the thirsty Southwest?
Maybe. It certainly was one of the rationales to justify the Compact, but moving water is very expensive and the likelihood is that the Southwest will use other technologies to meet its water needs. Great Lakes water would only go to the Southwest if it was the cheapest option, and it’s probably not.

Should we allow for water deportation in times of serious water scarcity for humanitarian purposes?
The Compact already allows for water to be moved outside the basin to meet short-term humanitarian crises, like sending water to hurricane victims in New Orleans. The broader concern expressed by some is around the commoditization of water. Under the Compact, water in a container larger than 5.7 gallons would be considered to be a bulk transfer and therefore prohibited for transfer outside of the basin. Each state may develop its own program to manage and regulate water withdrawal in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons. This approach to managing water in containers reflects the one already in place in Ontario and Québec, is legally sound and protective of the resource.

Why do people drink bottled water from Fiji and France?
As a living organism, humans have daily hydration needs. You have to take in a certain amount of liquid in order to survive, no matter where it comes from – adult beverages, bottled water, soft drinks, etc. People choose to drink bottled water for a whole degree of beliefs far beyond the hydration needs provided by that liquid.

Is the Compact universally accepted, or are some people against it?
Any political compromise is just that – it’s a compromise. Everyone involved in the negotiation of the Compact probably would have written it a little bit differently if they had been writing it themselves. The Compact is broadly accepted by most decision-makers as a good compromise, and that’s why it’s been approved by all the state legislatures, the Congress and the president.

What did The Nature Conservancy do to help move the Compact along?
The process of negotiating the language of the Compact took almost five years and was negotiated by representatives of the governors in the eight-state basin. That group of governors asked a body of experts from a number of areas to advise them on the language in the Compact, and the Conservancy was one of those technical advisors. Specifically, we provided input to the negotiators on the likely ecological impacts from various potential withdrawals and flow alterations.

Are you happy with the outcome? Why?
Yes. The Compact sets the stage for the Conservancy to begin having discussions with the states on ways to better manage these globally significant water resources in a way that recognizes and protects biological function. It’s important to note that the Compact doesn’t do that, it only sets the stage for it to happen.

So, what’s next?
The Conservancy is going to do what it’s done for more than 50 years, which is to take the knowledge garnered by our scientists and others to inform policy makers and communities to help them build water management protocols that are good for human communities and natural communities. This is the concept of “Protecting Nature, Preserving Life” in action!

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