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Great Lakes Compact Begins Trip Toward Ratification By Congress

July 24, 2008

By Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 24–WASHINGTON — Parched states in other parts of the country someday might want to tap into the fresh water of the Great Lakes, but Congress stands ready to prevent that, lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday.

Congress is likely to ratify — possibly this year — the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among the eight Great Lakes states — including New York — that bans most water diversions, the lawmakers said.

“It will be done by the end of this session, I assure you,” said Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who was among the lawmakers introducing the ratification bill Wednesday.

Prospects in the Senate are a bit murkier, but the bill will pass eventually, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

“We believe we now have a bulwark against any effort to divert the Great Lakes’ waters,” Levin said. “And I don’t know of any regional opposition.”

The compact has its roots in legislation Congress passed in 2000 that encouraged the Great Lakes governors to negotiate an agreement to protect the lakes.

The deal they eventually struck bans water diversion in almost all cases — although Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., has criticized it for allowing bottled Great Lakes drinking water to be sold elsewhere. The compact also sets regional goals for water conservation.

Earlier this month, Michigan became the last of the eight Great Lakes states to ratify the agreement. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec have approved nearly identical deals, although they are separate from the compact because states can’t make deals with foreign governments.

The resolution ratifying the compact could go directly to the House floor and be passed by next month, Oberstar said. In the Senate, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the measure, which could pass by the end of the year.

“I think we have a good shot,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N. Y.

Lawmakers said they think the compact is hugely important because the demand for fresh water is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years — and the Great Lakes possesses a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water.

“We all see what’s happened with oil,” said Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich. “The same thing is likely to happen with water– but it’s likely to be worse.”

Without the protections provided by the compact, drier states might try to strike deals to extract the lakes’ waters, said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

“They’ve been stealing our jobs, which led me to ask: Are they going to steal our water, too?” Voinovich asked.

But approval of the compact makes a reversal more likely, enhancing Great Lakes states as potential sites for new business simply because of the abundance of cheap water, Ehlers said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N. Y., also is an original co-sponsor of the compact resolution, which enjoys the support of the likely presidential nominees of both parties.

In another Great Lakes development, a U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision that forces the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce federal law on ballast water discharges.

Officials blame ballast water from ocean-going ships for introducing many of the 180 aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes. A number of these species, including zebra and quagga mussels, have damaged the lakes’ ecosystem.

New York, five other Great Lakes states and several environmental groups sued to force the EPA to enforce the act.

The agency, which had exempted such ships from the federal Clean Water Act, must now issue permits for any discharge.

“Today’s decision is a huge win in protecting New York State’s Great Lakes from invasive species and pollution that for too long have threatened our local ecosystems, economies and our health,” New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.

Jennifer Nalbone, an invasive species expert with the environmental group Great Lakes United, said she was heartened by the court decision confirming the EPA’s regulatory role.

But she said the permit proposed by the EPA “doesn’t add any new protections in the short term.”

News Staff Reporter John F. Bonfatti contributed to this report. jzremski@buffnews.com

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