Senate Passes Bill That Would Protect Great Lakes

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

CHICAGO -- Efforts to protect the Great Lakes from those who may covet their vast quantities of water for an increasingly thirsty world took a major step forward Friday as the Senate passed legislation endorsing the Great Lakes Basin Compact.

The broad multi-state agreement would ban most diversion of Great Lakes water to any place outside the basin and would mandate conservation efforts inside it. Despite what some criticized as significant loopholes in the measure, House leaders said the bill would be a priority after the five-week congressional recess, and President Bush has said he would sign it.

"This is a little like Saudi Arabia announcing it's going to conserve oil," said Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental organization that has pushed for the compact. "Because we are such a water-rich part of the globe, we've never had to conserve water. The fact we're doing it now not only shows it's important to us, but a signal to the rest of the world it has to start doing the right thing."

But Davis and other environmentalists also warned that similarly bold action is needed to confront the long list of environmental woes that are degrading the lakes' waters.

The compact will help stanch the bleeding, and "now we have to triage the victim," Davis said. "We still have to fight a multi-front war to bring the Great Lakes back from a tipping point."

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, as it is formally known, is the result of a decade-long process spurred by fears of water being sold to the Southwest, or to Asia. The bill must now clear the House, whose Judiciary Committee endorsed it on Wednesday.

"My intention is to move this and move this fast," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the fourth-ranking member of the Democratic leadership.

But Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said that the compact needs to be strengthened and that it could lead to increased commercial exploitation of Great Lakes water because of the so-called bottled-water loophole, which allows the bottling and sale of the water.

"It's not the container size, it's the commodity we're worried about it," Stupak said. "There's an opportunity for commercialization. If you start shipping water out of the basin in bottles, the dam has broken and everybody will be after our water."

Still awaiting action in Washington and the state capitals is a long list of proposals to address the critical environmental threats facing the lakes, including raw sewage discharges from overburdened municipal water-treatment systems and the toll of invasive species that costs taxpayers at least $200 million a year, according to a recent University of Notre Dame study.

The waves lapping Chicago area beaches teem with E. coli and other bacteria at levels the Natural Resources Defense Council pegs as the highest in the nation.

The appealing clarity of the water is a consequence of invasive zebra and quagga mussels that slurp up microorganisms that once made the water murkier but formed the basis for a healthy food chain.

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