Minnesota considers plan to keep Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes

Dogs on a Lake Superior beach
Dogs walking along the beach on Lake Superior's Wisconsin Point.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

You can trace the compact back to the mid-1980s, when a coal company proposed to pipe Lake Superior water to Montana to feed a coal slurry pipeline. That never happened.

But another idea almost did in 1999. A company wanted to fill tankers with Lake Superior water, and sell the water in Asia. Public outrage killed that project, but that scheme uncovered a weakness in federal law on water diversions.

Great Lakes states
The Great Lakes region.
Map courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

"There was a good look at that existing federal law," says Kent Lokkesmoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Waters. "And it was felt that since there weren't any standards or processes built into that law, it was subject to challenge, and that we should have something that was more durable and defensible to protect the Great Lakes."

Lokkesmoe's been helping draft the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact for five years. Known as The Great Lakes Compact, it's a binding document between the eight Great Lakes states to adopt uniform state laws regulating water withdrawals. There's a similar process underway in Canada.

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"The compact prohibits diversions, although it allows for some exceptions," Lokkesmoe says. "And the exceptions are these places where you have communities that are on both sides of the boundary, or potentially a community that's within the county that's on both sides of the boundary."

What it doesn't do, Lokkesmoe says, is actually change much in Minnesota. The state already regulates the water more strictly than the compact proposes.

The Great Lakes are not a big bathtub of water that was put here for us to use.

And there are grandfather clauses. It won't, for example, affect businesses that might already be pulling water out of the Lake Superior watershed, like some Iron Range taconite mines.

The document has to pass eight state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress. Molly Flanagan, with the National Wildlife Federation, says the parallel process to adopt the same standards in Ontario and Quebec Canada is already underway.

"I understand that Quebec has already completed a review of their laws, and has implemented legislation, or rules that are necessary in order for Quebec to come into compliance with the compact," Flanagan says. "Ontario is in the process of doing that right now, and I believe they're in the midst of a 30-day comment period."

But in the U.S., it hasn't been all smooth sailing. The compact was offered in four state legislatures last year, but only passed the lower houses of two.

Flanagan says the compact can be difficult to understand. And, in the seven non-Minnesota states, it will require new water permitting laws.

Mark Olson
State Rep. Mark Olson, R. Big Lake, says the Great Lakes Compact is being rushed through the Legislature.
Image courtesy of Mn House of Representatives

Ohio State Sen. Timothy Grendall claims the compact is a threat to private property rights and would make his state less competitive for economic development.

Minnesota Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, led an unsuccessful fight against the compact two weeks ago in the Minnesota House. He says the compact is a large, confusing document, getting rushed through the Minnesota Legislature.

"It should have gone to the Commerce Committee, should have gone to the [Agriculture] Committee, should have gone to the Local Government Committee, should have gone to the Judiciary Committee," Olson says. "I raised the question on the floor of the House about international courts. There's issues of right of redress here."

Olson says the bill creates a new entity with power over Minnesotans, but out of Minnesota's control. And he says once in, it could be impossible to get Minnesota back out of it.

Julie O'Leary
Julie O'Leary is board member of the coalition Great Lakes United, and serves as a Northeast Minnesota Programs Coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership

But environmental advocates say global warming makes the compact a necessity.

"The Great Lakes are not a big bathtub of water that was put here for us to use," says Julie O'Leary, a Duluth-based program coordinator with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

"We know that the rest of the country is predicted to become drier," O'Leary says. "We also know that population centers are moving to warmer, drier parts of the country where there is not enough water supply locally. So I think there are a lot of pressures, environmental and political pressures, that could come into play that could seriously impact water levels in the Great Lakes."

Great Lakes governors, including Gov. Pawlenty have signed pledges to support the compact. It passed the House two weeks ago. This week, it's expected on the floor of the Minnesota Senate.