STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, some experts think that water will eventually cause as much conflict as oil does today. And if that happens, plenty of eyes may turn to an area that you might consider the Saudi Arabia of fresh water. It's the Great Lakes that string along the U.S. border with Canada. Those lakes contain one-fifth of the fresh surface water in the world.
All the American states that border these lakes have now approved an agreement to keep that water from being diverted elsewhere. NPR's David Schaper reports on the Great Lakes Water Compact.
DAVID SCHAPER: It's a perfectly gorgeous summer day and I'm standing on the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois - just north of Chicago - looking out at the clear, blue-green waters of Lake Michigan that appear to go on endlessly.
Mr. CAMERON DAVIS (President, Alliance for the Great Lakes): And as a kid I used to think that.
SCHAPER: Cameron Davis is president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Mr. DAVIS: I used to look out over Lake Michigan and say, my God, it goes on forever. We never have to worry about this. But it's not true. This is a finite, non-renewable natural treasure. So what that means is we have to make sure that the water that we have stays here.
SCHAPER: Davis says the Great Lakes Water Compact, signed by the governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, will do just that.
Mr. DAVIS: The compact for the very first time will provide uniform binding water use standards for the eight Great Lake states and the two Canadian provinces. First time ever, we've all been playing off the same sheet music when it comes to how we use this amazing natural resource.
SCHAPER: Amazing, especially to those who have never seen the crystal clear blue waters and finely grained sands that have some Great Lakes beaches rivaling those in the Caribbean. But to many who live closest to the lakes, they're taken for granted. Something that happened ten years ago changed that.
Mr. DAVID NAFTZGER (Council of Great Lakes Governors): In 1998 there was a Lake Superior-based company in Ontario that proposed to take water by tanker out of Lake Superior to Asia.
SCHAPER: David Naftzger is the executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors. He says that proposal spurred the Great Lakes governors to take action. In 2001 they agreed to a framework to begin negotiating the compact. By 2005 they had a deal to take to their state legislatures that first and foremost requires those within the Great Lakes Basin to take better care of it and develop water conservation plans and water quality standards.
The compact also prohibits large-scale diversions of Great Lakes waters outside of the Great Lakes Basin.
Mr. NAFTZGER: It says clearly that the Great Lakes should not be the long-term water supply answer for any other part of the world or any other part of the country.
SCHAPER: But shipping or piping Great Lakes water to Southwest desert towns or drought-stricken Southern cities is still far too expensive. Those who really want to tap into the Great Lakes water supply are cities and towns just outside of the watershed looking in.
Jack Chiovatera is the mayor of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Mayor JACK CHIOVATERA (New Berlin, Wisconsin): It has been very frustrating to be able to see the lake from a couple of higher points in the city but not being able to obtain the water.
SCHAPER: New Berlin straddles the Lake Michigan watershed divide, meaning about a third of the city's 38,000 residents drink and shower in Lake Michigan water; the rest get water from underwater aquifers, some of which are contaminated with radium. The compact allows communities like this to take water as long as they treat it and return it to the lake.
But even before that can happen, the deal needs to be approved by Congress.
Mr. NOAH HALL (Great Lakes Environmental Law Center): The chance of the compact passing in Congress are better the sooner it gets there.
SCHAPER: Noah Hall heads the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Michigan. He says while Congress usually defers to the states in the region effected with most water compacts, the Great Lakes Compact governs a much greater portion of the nation's fresh water supply.
Mr. HALL: And as we're seeing droughts and more shortages in other parts of the country, I think that there's a legitimate concern that Congress might be reluctant to lock up the Great Lakes and prevent diversions to other parts of the country.
SCHAPER: Hall and others say it would be best to get the compact through Congress before 2010, when a new census will likely cost the Great Lakes region anywhere from a few to a dozen seats in Congress - seats that will go to states in the growing and dry South and West.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
INSKEEP: There is another challenge facing the Great Lakes - the increasing threat of invasive species. And you can learn more about that by going to NPR.org.