Slow Start on Great Lakes Pact

Ten years ago this month, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec agreed to work together to more effectively protect the water resources of the Great Lakes.  Their agreement eventually took the form of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.  The states agreed among themselves to jointly protect the lakes from out-of-basin diversions and to make more efficient use of water within the basin.  Their voluntary agreement became federal law in December 2008 after adoption by each state legislature and the US Congress.

My colleague Karen Hobbs and I have just completed a report that describes the slow start the states have made in implementing their own agreement.  In a water-rich part of the country, it’s not too surprising that promoting water efficiency and conservation would take state officials into unfamiliar terrain.  To implement the Compact, the states are to maximize water use efficiency and minimize the waste of water.  But let’s face it, the Great Lakes hold a heckuva lot of water.  If I’m standing in Cleveland or Duluth with an unbroken view of fresh water all the way to the horizon, why should I care?

In the first instance, in-basin efficiency was important for the states’ original argument to get the Compact approved -- that the Lakes should be protected against out-of-basin diversions.  If the Great Lakes states were going to argue that out-of-basin interests could and should manage their own water resources more carefully -- rather than expect to solve their water problems by new withdrawals from the Great Lakes -- then the lake states themselves should be willing demonstrate responsible and efficient water use within the basin.  Of course, efficient use is especially important when you consider that less than 1 percent of Great Lakes water is renewed annually by precipitation, surface water runoff, and inflow from groundwater sources.  What's more, the vastness of the lakes themselves masks the vulnerability of the connecting channels to lower lake levels, where shallower channels will have a serious impact on the lakes' extensive commercial shipping.

But the Compact's approval is history.  Now that the Compact is a reality, what’s the rush?  Why bother with using water more efficiently, especially when states and communities face pressing fiscal and financial challenges?

Here’s why – because states and communities face pressing fiscal and financial challenges. 

Even where water is not scarce, it takes money – lots of money – to pump, treat, and distribute potable water and to collect and treat the resulting wastewater to acceptable standards prior to discharge.  The Great Lakes states are facing enormous costs for capital infrastructure – more than $180 billion over the next 2 decades, according to state estimates compiled by the US EPA.  $12 billion in Indiana.  $26 billion in Ohio.  $30 billion in Illinois.  Those are billions with a “B”.  Who has that kind of money lying around?  If you answered “the Federal Government,” you missed the memo about the national debt.

Clearly the states are going to have to become more creative if they have any hope of making the investments needed to restore our waterways to health and maintain quality water and wastewater service for consumers in the years ahead.  Making more efficient use of water will be an essential part of any successful strategy.  This is because the cost of many water and wastewater facilities – tanks, pumps, valves, conduits, and so forth, varies with the quantity or flow of water to be supplied or wastewater to be treated.  12-inch pipe costs less than 24-inch pipe.  Expanding a treatment plant’s capacity by 25 million gallons per day will cost less than expanding the same plant’s capacity by 30 million gallons per day.  These cost savings may not all be proportional, but the impact of smaller flows on the construction and operating costs of many proposed infrastructure projects will be positive.   

The upshot: Water conservation and efficiency should be part of the cost-saving strategy of each of the Great Lakes states, even apart from concerns about greater water scarcity, reduced reliability, or lower lake levels that may come with climate change.

Plus, if you combine the cost-saving potential of many water efficiency strategies with the job-creating potential of water-saving technologies, you get a twofer.  Many of the world’s leading manufacturers of water-efficient plumbing fixtures, accurate high-tech water meters, and water-saving home and commercial appliances have employment centers in the Great Lakes states.  Service companies that use sophisticated acoustic equipment to pinpoint leaks in water mains (long before they blow up in an intersection) are putting Midwesterners to work today.  And water efficient landscapes offer new markets for innovative lawn seed producers also located in this region. 

In our report, we’re recommending common sense, “no regrets” water conservation and efficiency measures that each state can adopt, without taking on major new spending programs.  In some instances, states simply need to sort out eligibility requirements for existing programs to make sure that cost-effective water conservation measures can be funded along side of the traditional components of water infrastructure.  In other instances, states can untangle their building and health codes to allow more use of gray water systems, rainwater catchment, and related “green infrastructure,” putting alternative supplies of water to use for purposes for which they are appropriate.

Our take:  Using water more efficiently in the Great Lakes Basin would make sense even if there were no Great Lakes Basin Compact.  Once state officials come to that realization, we expect leadership to grow from self-interest, and water efficiency to be seen as more of an opportunity than an obligation.