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Is the Great Lakes Water Compact Doomed?

Feb. 20, 2008
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Last week, Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) and the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, state Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford), sent a kind letter to the president of the Ohio state Senate: Let’s work together, it said, to protect the Great Lakes. Forget about the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, which has been in the works for four years, and add some new rules that we think will benefit our states.

But some observers say the offer would actually destroy the compact, which is pending in the Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures. Eight states must ratify the compact in their state legislatures before the new rules would become binding. Gov. Jim Doyle, who played a pivotal role in developing the compact, blasted the move. Doyle said it was “troubling” that the Assembly Republican leaders would try to “derail” it by working with Ohio.

Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, said that if Wisconsin and Ohio lawmakers inserted their own rules into the compact, the entire amended agreement would have to be sent back to all eight states. “If one state changes the language in the compact during the adoption process, then it has adopted a different agreement, which then has to be readopted by all the other Great Lakes states in order to be effective,” Annin said.

Two states have already adopted the compact, and two more governors have indicated that they will sign off on it soon. Annin was skeptical that the Wisconsin-Ohio pact would ultimately win support. “The idea that those four states would go back out and readopt a revised compact favored by a few politicians in Ohio and Wisconsin seems very unlikely,” Annin said.

Annin said he wasn’t surprised that lawmakers in Wisconsin and Ohio would want to work together to amend the compact. Some Ohio legislators are concerned about allowing one governor, out of the eight involved, to veto any water diversion out of the Great Lakes basin—a concern first voiced by Republicans in Wisconsin. And these same Wisconsin legislators have adopted a property rights argument first raised in Ohio to oppose the current compact language, he said.

“It’s a brilliant piece of political maneuvering,” Annin said. “There has been a dovetailing of concerns.” But he noted that the compact would benefit some Wisconsin “straddling communities,” such as New Berlin, which are partially within the basin. Under current federal rules, New Berlin would have to get permission from all eight states for a water diversion. But under the compact, it would only need the Wisconsin governor’s approval to use Great Lakes water.

“Under the compact, it will be much, much easier for a community like New Berlin to get Great Lakes water, period,” Annin said. “That’s why any other straddling community in Wisconsin should be clamoring for a compact.”

In contrast, areas outside of the basin, such as Waukesha County, currently need permission from the eight states to get Great Lakes water, and would still need that approval under the compact. But Annin noted that a governor would most likely not veto a responsible diversion request.

“In the history of Great Lakes water diversions, a governor has never vetoed a water diversion proposal that returned the water to the Great Lakes after it was used,” Annin said. Annin said that the compact would continue to be an issue not only in this fall’s elections, but beyond. He said that Congress must approve the final compact, and it would be in the region’s best interests to get that done quickly because it will lose nine congressional seats in 2010 since population is moving from the Midwest to the Southwest, where water is in short supply.

“I think there will be a big push in 2009 to ratify the compact before the Great Lakes region loses more seats in Congress,” Annin said. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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