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The History of 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

This shows the cover of the orginal Great Lakes Charter document.

Cover of the Great Lakes Charter document

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 (PDF, 91 kB), which has been codified into Environmental Conservation Law ECL 21-1001 (link leaves DEC's website) 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 each of these documents, the parties agree to prohibit (with limited exceptions) diversions of water from the Great Lakes Basin and to manage and regulate water withdrawals within the basin of 100,000 gallons or more per day.

New York State Water Resources Law

In August of 2011, NYS ECL 15-1501 was revised and regulations (NYCRR Part 601) were issued in April 2013, in part, to implement the requirements of the Compact in New York State. Water Withdrawal Permits are now required (with some exceptions) for all water withdrawal system having the capacity to withdraw 100,000 gallons per day or more of surface water, groundwater, or combination thereof.

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