Water Wars and Peace

The Great Lakes states and provinces sign on to protect their greatest resource -- and need only a rubber stamp from the feds.
September 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Don't squander our water." That's the message the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is sending. The agreement among eight states and two Canadian provinces essentially prevents any single jurisdiction from selling off massive quantities of Great Lakes water without the permission of other compact members.

With the last signatory in place -- Wisconsin -- the compact has been forwarded to Congress for final ratification. If history is any guide, the compact should sail through. Indeed, interstate water compacts have a long and storied history of success when it comes to how the feds and states deal with dicey problems such as water distribution. That's important because there are only three ways that interstate water wars can be resolved: Congress can intervene, the U.S. Supreme Court can intervene or states can work out agreements among themselves -- and send them on for congressional approval.

States, to their credit, have been fairly effective in working things out. In fact, Congress has intervened only twice in the history of water wars, once in 1928 in a fight between Arizona and California, and once in 1990 in a fight between California, Nevada and the Piute Tribe. In all, there are now 26 interstate compacts covering water rights, the first and still most contentious being between Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. That compact took 22 years and a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to finalize, and the partners still chafe.

But by all accounts, the 27th interstate water compact, now before Congress, was a relative breeze to negotiate. In part, acceptance of the deal was quick because it involves the management of a relatively plentiful resource: The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. Most water compacts have had to deal with scarcities.

That doesn't mean those who live around the lakes aren't worried about drain offs. That fear was crystallized in the late 1990s when Ontario granted a permit to an Asian shipping company to sail tankers full of fresh water from North America out the St. Lawrence Seaway and off to the Far East.

The action caused such a furor, both in Canada and the United States, that the province was compelled to cancel the permit. In the wake of the tanker fracas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ontario and Quebec all recognized the need for some multi-lateral agreement to prevent one rogue state (or province) from slurping up massive amounts of H2O for its own purposes.

Also contributing to the push, says Lester Graham, who covers water issues for the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, was scuttlebutt that Southwestern states were hoping to poke a straw into the Great Lakes and suck water into the far away deserts of Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Far more likely, Graham believes, was diversion of Great Lakes water to Mississippi River Basin jurisdictions, a much more technically feasible proposition and one that, despite recent record rains and floods in the Midwest, remains an issue between states that drain into the Mississippi and those that send rainwater to the Great Lakes.

Still, the hint of Southwest water envy played a key role in building popular support in the eight states for ratifying the compact and sending it along to Congress. Also helping was a recent regional drought that had brought down the lakes' water levels.

As with all compacts, questions loom about how it will work and who will enforce it. Environmentalists are unhappy that, while water can't be shipped or piped out of the watershed in bulk, bottlers can fill jugs smaller than five gallons with impunity and sell them internationally. (When Nestle wanted to set up a bottling operation in Wisconsin, the state said no way; Michigan was happy to say yes.)

Still, those who care about the environmental and economic health of the Great Lakes watershed are hailing the agreement as a major step forward in interstate and international cooperation on the lakes. Clearly, states, left to their own devices, don't need federal meddling to work through controversial and complex issues.