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States eye stricter curbs on Great Lakes water

Lake levels reached record lows last year, and the region worries that fast-growing states and communities will try to grab its water.

SOURCE: Great Lakes Information Network/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson created a stir in October when, campaigning for president in water-hungry Las Vegas, he called for a national water policy and remarked that states like Wisconsin were "awash in water."

No one has seriously proposed that parched western states sip from the Midwest. And Mr. Richardson's office swiftly declared he had no such intention. But his remark tapped a growing sensitivity here over the Great Lakes and has given new urgency to a regional initiative to protect them from outsiders.

"There's a tremendous economic impact here," says Ohio state Rep. Matthew Dolan. "We want companies to come where the water is. We don't want the water to go where they are."

Several recent trends have heightened the concern of those in the Great Lakes Basin: Lake levels fell to near record lows last year, drought struck the Southeast, and climate-change studies have cast new uncertainty over water supplies in the Great Lakes region. Meanwhile, population shifts are slowly draining the region of its political power. Great Lakes states lost congressional seats after the 2000 census and expect to lose more after 2010.

"Population growth is occurring most rapidly in water-poor areas of the Southwest and Southeast in the United States," says David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors. "Because of growth trends there, we want to have long-term protections in place."

Federal law requires consent of the governors of all the Great Lakes states before any water can be diverted outside the basin. Diversions have been permitted in only a few cases for communities at the edge of the basin. But lawyers and water experts say the federal law offers only weak protection and is too vague to stand up in court against potential suits from communities wanting water.


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