© 2024 MICHIGAN PUBLIC
91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Negotiators reflect on Great Lakes Compact 15 years later

In 1998, a group proposed to withdraw 150 million gallons of Great Lakes water each year and sell it to arid areas of Asia. Negotiators scrambled to come up with an agreement to stop such withdrawals.
Lester Graham
A group proposed to withdraw 150 million gallons of Great Lakes water each year and sell it to arid areas of Asia. Negotiators scrambled to come up with an agreement to stop such withdrawals.

Some of the people who worked to draft an international agreement to protect the Great Lakes gathered at the University of Michigan in December to mark the 15th anniversary of the approval of the Great Lakes Compact .

David de Launay worked for the government of Ontario when he took part in negotiations to protect Great Lakes water.
Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
David de Launay worked for the government of Ontario when he took part in negotiations to protect Great Lakes water.

Twenty-five years ago, a Canadian company called Nova Group heard about water shortages in some Asian countries. They saw an opportunity. Why not fill up tanker ships with Great Lakes water and make some money?

David de Launay was working with the government of Ontario when the Nova Group came to the provincial government with its business plan.

“They could get a permit from the Ontario government to take a whole bunch of water off of Lake Superior and ship it to China.”

The plan was to export 150 million gallons of water a year. Ontario didn’t have a law to prevent it, so a permit was issued.

People around the Great Lakes were displeased, to say the least.

The eight Great Lakes states and the provinces on the other side of the border were not sure what they could do.

“What is your ability to protect this resource? And there was like one line in federal law that said the governors have to agree to any diversion. As I recall, that’s about it,” said Kate Bartter, who was working with the Ohio governor at the time.

Kate Bartter was an aide to Ohio Governor Bob Taft and worked on negotiations on the Great Lakes Compact.
Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Kate Bartter was an aide to Ohio Governor Bob Taft and worked on negotiations on the Great Lakes Compact.

Ohio had consulted with lawyers with expertise in water rights, but this was beyond their experience, given the complications of the several regional governments and the two federal governments.

The Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec began negotiating.

There were several interests who had a stake, including business and the several tribes that had fishing rights and treaty agreements with the federal governments.

Todd Ambs worked for Wisconsin during the negotiations. He said getting an agreement took some effort.

“Over 100 in-person day-long and evening meetings, 400 conference calls, 92 drafts.”

It also took a willingness to protect the lakes and that was agreed upon by all parties.

Todd Ambs represented the State of Wisconsin during the Great Lakes Compact negotiations.
Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Todd Ambs represented the State of Wisconsin during the Great Lakes Compact negotiations.

It was incredibly complex because the agreement had to be strong enough to get each governmental body, including Congress and the Canadian Parliament to pass the Great Lakes Compact exactly as it was written. No changes or amendments could be made.

The agreement received final approval in 2008, a decade after the Nova Group first proposed exporting the water.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
Related Content