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Our Water, Our Future

Guest Post by Randall Hyman

How can we as a region manage great lakes waters for future generations?

Over one trillion gallons of basin waters are used each day. Those waters are used
for drinking, generating electricity, irrigating agricultural fields, treating wastes, and supporting a wide range of industrial operations. They also support an ecosystem of living things that, in turn, supports a recreational industry. There is no “unused” water in the system.

Until recently, the governance of users and uses was fragmented, driven by a patchwork of regulatory and common-law schemes, and only loosely connected to the health of the Lakes and the natural resources that depend upon those waters. When a firm secured the rights to export millions of gallons of Lake Superior water in tanker ships to Asia, the region was challenged to rethink how the two countries—eight states and two provinces—manage their shared waters.

How can water use drive ecosystem improvements?

The Great Lakes Protection Fund assembled, directed, and funded a team of legal experts to advise the region’s Governors on their legal authority over their shared waters. That team concluded that a single decision-making body needed to be created through a multi-state compact approved by Congress and the President. Further, it was advised that conflicts be resolved through the lens of what is best for the region’s water dependent natural resources, not on the basis of economic advantage or the sale of water as a commodity.

The Fund supported multi-year negotiations and an expansive process of public participation to make possible a unified submission for Federal approval. In parallel, The Fund supported a broad set of project teams that explored the scientific, technical, and practical dimensions of such a governance system. These teams:

  • Created technology to link water development, land cover, geological features, and ecological impacts. This work led to Michigan’s groundbreaking Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool.
  • Demonstrated how habitat, flow, and stream restoration techniques can improve the health of the basin’s waters and water-dependent natural resources.
  • Documented how uses of the same amount of water have differing impacts depending on where and when the withdrawals are made, what the water is used for, and where those flows are returned.
  • Developed online monitoring, mapping, and networking platforms to encourage campus, neighborhood, city, and basin cooperation in adopting new conservation practices.
  • Developed scenarios of likely water withdrawals and informed how governance systems should be designed to anticipate those reactions.
  • Facilitated the design and development of what became the Great Lakes-
    St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact and associated Regional Agreement, providing over $1 million for expert advice, travel support, and staff time.

The work of these teams has led to a new generation of water governance in the Great Lakes region. The federally-approved Great Lakes Basin Compact requires the states to act with a single voice on new, regionally significant water uses.

Building upon the Compact negotiations, the states and provinces also entered into an international agreement about how water uses decisions will be reviewed and managed across borders. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement was signed on December 13, 2005. These agreements place the health of the basin’s resources at the center of governmental decision-making. Both agreements were driven by the objective “…to protect, conserve, restore, improve and effectively manage the Waters and Water Dependent Natural Resources of the Basin…”

Teams supported by Great Lakes Protection Fund have explored the nexus between human actions and the physical hydrology of the environment with the aim of providing greater benefits to the natural resources we use. These teams have:

  • worked to identify, demonstrate, and refine the most promising strategies for dam operation, run-off regimes, wetland restoration, and shoreline processes;
  • built a suite of tools to identify candidate restoration projects, measure impacts, and assess alternatives;
  • supported frameworks for water resource use decisions that allow for a more natural flow regime in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

What began as a wake-up call—a formal approval to export water in bulk for sale abroad—became a concerted set of research explorations and led to the creation of a new regional authority to manage major new uses of water. Along the way, the region pioneered new science and created new practical approaches that tie our management of water uses to the value of our natural resources.

The Fund has helped to ensure that new uses of water are better than those they displace. The legal, technical, and practical products of these teams have accelerated the rate of innovation, which will allow both our region’s economy and ecology to emerge stronger and more resilient.