Editorial: Keep a watchful eye on who gets our Great Lakes water

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A neighbor needed a drink of water. We gave her one.

But at the risk of seeming uncaring, let’s not make this a habit.

Last month, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states, including Illinois, signed off on the first request to take water out of the Great Lakes basin since a 2008 agreement to protect our water went into effect.

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The governors held out for several significant revisions in the request from the Wisconsin city of Waukesha, which wanted to divert the water because its wells are tainted with radium. In the end, environmental groups that had been almost universally opposed were mostly satisfied.

But the big question is whether the states will use the power they insisted on to monitor the deal — and avoid making this a bad precedent — in the future. It’s easy to imagine Illinois or New York getting distracted with homegrown issues. That can’t be allowed to happen.

The Great Lakes don’t provide water just for drinking and recreation. The lakes are the environmental and economic heart of the region, a source of jobs and a means of transportation. They underpin the region’s entire ecosystem and define our unique identity.

In a world where fresh water is expected to be an increasingly scarce commodity, it’s essential we protect the lakes. Because only 1 percent of the Great Lakes water is recharged each year through rainwater and other sources, shipping water outside the basin could be disastrous.

But the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Joyce Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation say they are reassured by safeguards added to the Waukesha request.

Although Waukesha will be permitted to divert up to 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water a day — less than it had requested — it will be required to pipe back a similar amount of treated wastewater into the Great Lakes basin, meaning there is no net loss. Adjoining towns that didn’t need the water were trimmed from the request. Also, Waukesha will be subject to comprehensive audits and enforcement to ensure it is abiding by the deal.

The agreement gives the power to monitor the deal to Canada and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. It is no small responsibility.

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