Protecting a Shared Future: Assessing and Advancing the Sustainable Management of the Great Lakes through Water Conservation and Efficiency

Issue Paper
June 22, 2011

The Great Lakes -- Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario -- form the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth, containing nearly 20 percent of the world's and 96 percent of the United States’ total supply of fresh surface water. More than 40 million people depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, fishing, recreation, and commerce. More than 1.5 million U.S. jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating more than $62 billion in annual wages. More than 160 million tons of commodities are shipped within and out of the Great Lakes Basin on an annual basis, with a total value of more than $13 billion.

Although the waters of the Great Lakes are vast, they are not inexhaustible. On average less than 1 percent of Great Lakes water is renewed annually by precipitation, surface water runoff, and inflow from groundwater sources. The Great Lakes face other threats as well, including invasive species, climate change, pollution of the water and beaches, shoreline development, and the loss of natural areas.

Protecting this shared resource has long been a priority for the governments of the United States and Canada, the states and provinces that surround the lakes -- Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ontario and Quebec -- and nonprofit and advocacy organizations. The latest and perhaps most significant effort to protect the lakes occurred in 2005 when the Great Lakes Governors and the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. At the same time, the Governors endorsed the companion Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which became law in the United States in 2008. The Compact is legally binding among the eight Great Lakes states and the federal government, mandating the states to jointly determine how to manage the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

Unfortunately, states are moving slowly to meet the water conservation and efficiency requirements of the Compact. This issue paper reviews the history of the Compact and each state’s often uneven progress towards implementing its provisions. It also identifies how each state -- and the region -- can ensure that the full promise of the Compact’s water conservation and efficiency goals is realized.