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Governors Meet on Access to Great Lakes

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Governors Meet on Access to Great Lakes

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Governors Meet on Access to Great Lakes

Governors Meet on Access to Great Lakes

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Governors and officials from the eight Great Lakes states meet in Milwaukee Tuesday to approve a new set of rules about access to and protection of the Great Lakes. Christina Shockley of member station WUWM reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Governors and officials from eight Great Lakes states will join their counterparts from Ontario and Quebec to approve today what some call the most significant water loss since the Clean Water Act. It's a sweeping set of rules that puts into motion a new way of thinking about and protecting the Great Lakes. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Christina Shockley reports.

CHRISTINA SHOCKLEY reporting:

The Great Lakes basin contains a huge treasure, about 20 percent of the world's and a whopping 95 percent of the nation's fresh surface water. The water system provides drinking water for 42 million people and is a defining characteristic of the states and provinces along its borders.

(Soundbite of water)

SHOCKLEY: Lake Michigan sits between Wisconsin and Michigan. Derek Scheer stands near the shore in a state part in Milwaukee on sunny, cold morning. The huge lake isn't frozen yet, but ice surrounds the large boulders near the shore. Sheer's environmental group, Clean Wisconsin, monitors the health of the Great Lakes.

Mr. DEREK SCHEER (Clean Wisconsin): Because it's such a large portion of the world's freshwater and it is a thirsty world, there is more and more concern that folks will be coming after the Great Lakes as a source of drinking water outside of the Great Lakes basin.

SHOCKLEY: That's already happened. Seven years ago, a Canadian company announced a plan to ship Great Lakes water to Asia. While the plan never went through, it was a wake-up call for many Great Lakes officials and led to the rules being approved today. The agreement calls for the water system to be treated as a single complex ecosystem made up of countless tributaries, underground aquifers and smaller lakes all held in the Great Lakes basin. The basin is a large depression in the surface of the land spanning from Minnesota to New York state and including the five Great Lakes: Michigan, Huron, Erie, Superior and Ontario. Most of the water in the basin stays there and eventually replenishes the lakes. Under the new rules, a few communities just outside the basin will be able to request water. One of those is Waukesha, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of pumping station)

SHOCKLEY: This pumping station delivers water to much of the city. It's in the parking lot of a shopping center. The pipes are neatly painted and clean because tour groups come through the facility to learn how a pumping station works. Jeff Detraux(ph) is the water supply manager for the utility.

Mr. JEFF DETRAUX (Water Supply Manager): OK, this is our well station number six. Over in the corner there's a 2,000-foot deep well. So the pump will pump the water out of the ground...

SHOCKLEY: Waukesha won't be able to rely on well water for long, so city officials say turning to Lake Michigan is one of the only options. James Rowan is a writer and public policy analyst in Milwaukee. He worked closely with longtime Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist fighting sprawl and supporting preservation of natural resources. He argues that the rules being approved today are still too vague.

Mr. JAMES ROWAN (Public Policy Analyst): If a community applies to divert water, for example, what are the boundaries that define that community? Are they the boundaries that exist at the time of the application or are they the boundaries of the community that could exist 10 years into the future?

SHOCKLEY: Rowan is also concerned that the agreement isn't strict enough on commercial interests, especially the bottled water industry. Other critics say the rules should require states to enact conservation plans sooner than they do. Still, they acknowledge the need for a framework of protections for the Great Lakes water system and see the rules as a good first step. Todd Ambs is with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and has been involved in four years of negotiations in this agreement. He considers the rules the bare minimum of what's required.

Mr. TODD AMBS (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources): We were going to be in trouble if we put together a document that was so specific that we then would go to the legislatures and say, well, here it is, yeah, it's big, significant, but you can't touch a word of it.

SHOCKLEY: Today's finding comes as many of the same officials are partnering with private groups to support a $20 billion plan to clean up the Great Lakes and keep out invasive species. A key aspect of the agreement signed today is the understanding that water used in any one community has an impact on all Great Lakes communities that share the massive freshwater system, whether in the Midwest, the East or Canada. For NPR News, I'm Christina Shockley in Milwaukee.

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