The simplest thing, of course, would be to have states bordering the Great Lakes pass laws declaring them out of bounds to raiders from water-hungry states. But the United States Supreme Court tends to frown on such obvious economic protectionism. So on Monday Feb. 11 the chief executives of the eight states and two Canadian provinces will take a more positive and legally supportable step to manage the liquid treasure in their midst better. In Milwaukee, states' representatives will sign the Great Lakes Charter, a pact committing them to gather data -- in most jurisdictions for the first time -- on their own use of lake waters for everything from power plants to sewage treatment.
The new agreement also will oblige them to work cooperatively, through a system of registration, permits, and joint consultation, to tighten controls over new and expanded uses of the lake reserves.
``It's a historic occasion,'' says Council of Great Lakes Governors chairman Anthony Earl, governor of Wisconsin. He calls it the first time ``we've put pen to paper'' on an issue long the focus of ``pious rhetoric.''
It marks, he says, a move toward self-discipline in agreeing to conserve and use the lakes' water more efficiently.
Spurring the agreement is concern over just how much water should remain in Great Lakes reserves, which now account for one-fifth of the world's surface supply of fresh water. Some experts have said consumption of water from the Great Lakes (water taken out but never replenished) could double by the year 2000 at the rate demand is increasing. They predict water levels in the lakes could drop by as much as 13 inches in the next 50 years.
And as water has become increasingly scarce and expensive in other parts of the country, there has been talk of using Lake Superior water for a coal slurry cross-country pipeline from Wyoming. Discussions have centered on transferring some Great Lakes water to the Missouri River if the latter were used to replenish a soon-to-be exhausted aquifer.
Many dismiss such prospects as prohibitively expensive and likely to be vetoed by Canada. Under a 1909 treaty with the US and Canada must approve any diversion (transferring water from one basin to another) that may affect the level and flow of water in the Great Lakes. But many others point to loopholes in the Canadian treaty.
Lake Michigan, for instance, is entirely within US boundaries and not included in the treaty. Proponents of the charter say it is better to be prepared 10 to 20 years in advance than to be caught unawares.
``In an age when people are going to the moon and there are considerable feats of human engineering, you can't rule these things out as impossible -- you have to plan for the future,'' agrees Jean Piette, the province of Quebec's representative on the task force that drafted the new charter.
The charter, 15 months in the drafting, takes an important cue from recent US Supreme Court decisions. The high court has struck down attempts at water embargoes by Nebraska and New Mexico on grounds that it impedes the flow of interstate commerce.
But the court's Nebraska opinion concedes that a state's position to resist diversion is strengthened if it can demonstrate its own need for a scarce resource and that it is using it in a prudent way while others eyeing it may have been more wasteful.
``It's the problem of the profligate child coming back to draw on the brothers' and sisters' bank accounts,'' says University of Michigan law Prof. Joseph L. Sax, Michigan's representative on the task force.
Although he notes that the charter has no enforcement teeth, he says he thinks the mutual interest in proving that states and bordering provinces are managing the water sensibly will keep the states on track.