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Great Lakes Water Quantity Management

A Limited Supply

The Great Lakes Basin covers approximately 95,000 square miles and is composed of five of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The Great Lakes and their bays and tributaries contain 20% of the world's supply of fresh surface water and 95% of the North American supply of fresh surface water. Obviously, the Great Lakes represent an invaluable natural resource to the people living within and along the basin boundaries. New York State is particularly fortunate to be bounded by two of the five Great Lakes with Lake Erie on the western portion of the state and Lake Ontario to the north.

Although the total volume of water in the Great Lakes seems immense, we recognize that these waters are essentially a non-renewable resource which must be carefully managed so that their economic, ecological and social benefits can be sustained for future generations. The waters of the Great Lakes have played a vital role in sustaining Native American cultures and in the growth of modern society. As our population increases and freshwater supplies in other regions are consumed, the pressure to tap into the Great Lakes will grow.

The water level of each of the Great Lakes depends on the balance between the amount of water entering the basin and the amount leaving the basin. This balance fluctuates naturally, occasionally within a couple of feet, based on seasonal, annual and long-term precipitation patterns. The International Joint Commission reports that most of the water volume in the Great Lakes is the result of the last glacial age more than 12,000 years ago. Today, less than 1% of the waters in the Great Lakes are renewed annually by precipitation (rain, snow, and sleet), surface water runoff, and inflow from groundwater sources.

The Great Lakes Charter of 1985

Recognizing the value and limited supply of water in the Great Lakes, the growing potential for new proposals to obtain water supplies from the region, and limitations of the existing legal framework for managing the Great Lakes waters, the Governors from the 8 U.S. states and the Premiers of the two Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes developed a non-binding agreement known as the Great Lakes Charter of 1985 (PDF) (35 kB). The Charter is intended to conserve the levels and flows of the lakes and tributary waters, to protect and conserve the Basin's ecosystem resources, and to enable cooperation between the States and Provinces. The Charter establishes a protocol for each state or province to consult with the others in the region before approving any diversion of water greater than 5 million gallons per day average in any 30-day period. However, the Charter stopped short of establishing a comprehensive and enforceable standard by which a State or Province should deny certain projects. Therefore, each Great Lakes' State and Province has no real enforcement authority or regionally consistent evaluation process under the Charter to prevent the removal of Great Lakes water from another state or province.

Annex 2001 to the Great Lakes Charter

In June, 2001, the Governors from the eight Great Lakes States and Premiers of the two Provinces, agreed to a set of resource conservation-based principles to amend the Great Lakes Charter of 1985. The purpose of the amendment, Annex 2001 (PDF) (370 kB), is to forge a new binding agreement to manage the Great Lakes waters, develop a decision-making standard for new or increased water withdrawals, and make further commitments to continue to improve the Great Lakes water management system.

Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements

On December 13, 2005, the Great Lakes Governors and Premiers signed two agreements designed to help achieve the original goals of the Great Lakes Charter, and to implement the principles established by the Annex 2001 amendment.

The two documents include an interstate compact among the eight Great Lakes states, formally named the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which has been codified into Environmental Conservation Law ECL 21-1001 (see "Links Leaving DEC's Website" in right hand column) and a cooperative agreement among the eight governors and two premiers, entitled the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement (PDF) (173 kB). In order for the cooperative agreement to become effective, Ontario and Quebec are working to incorporate its provisions into provincial law and regulations. Once accomplished, the agreements together will create a comprehensive, cooperative and equitable management framework for achieving the sustainable water use and resource conservation objectives outlined in the Annex 2001 amendment to the Great Lakes Charter of 1985.

Some of the key commitments in these agreements include:

  • A ban on new and increased diversions of water out of the basin with limited exceptions - primarily for community water supply systems that straddle the basin divide;
  • Implementation of a common decision-making standard for each of the eight Great Lakes States and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec that will govern new or increased water use proposals and the diversion exceptions;
  • Creation of a decision-making process for in-basin water uses that will take place largely within the States and Provinces with a cooperative regional review for projects having the largest water losses;
  • Strengthened commitments for more efficient use of water through improved conservation of current and future water users; and
  • Expanded opportunities for involving the public and Great Lakes Tribes and First Nations in the decision-making, science, and cumulative impact assessment processes.