Across Great Lakes region, pact faces different challenges
Written by Associated Press   
Sunday, 01 April 2007 05:48

Four years of bargaining were needed to draft a Great Lakes water protection compact that satisfied the governors of the region's eight states. How long their legislatures will take to approve it - if they do - is anyone's guess.

"Getting a bill through any legislature is a challenge," said Linda Woggon, chairwoman of an Ohio business coalition on water issues. "But getting the same thing through eight of them is kind of mind-boggling."

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact also needs the blessing of Congress. But for now, the action isn't in Washington, D.C., but in state capitals such as Albany, Columbus and Madison.

Lawmakers will consider not only the compact, but whether separate legislation is needed for their state to comply with its terms.

Following is a brief summary of where things stand in each state, based on interviews with key players such as government officials and lobbyists for industry and environmental groups.

ILLINOIS: House and Senate votes were expected shortly, and supporters were optimistic. The compact makes a huge concession to Illinois, allowing the continued diversion of 2.1 billion gallons daily from Lake Michigan to supply the Chicago area with drinking water.

The diversion, which dates from the mid-1800s, also supports navigation and flushes away storm runoff. Under the compact, local governments that divert Great Lakes water must return it to the same watershed after use. But Chicago gets to continue releasing its leftover water into the Mississippi River watershed.

Illinois will cooperate with the other states and Canadian provinces to improve basinwide water management, said Dan Injerd, Lake Michigan manager for the Department of Natural Resources. "We'll join with them on conservation measures above and beyond what we already do," he said.

INDIANA: A Senate committee has conducted a hearing on bills to approve the compact. But action is being postponed until next year so lawmakers and the governor's staff can work with interested groups on accompanying legislation to bring the state into compliance.

It appeared Indiana might become a spoiler as the Council of Great Lakes Governors neared agreement on the pact in fall 2005. Representatives of newly elected Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, said it did too much regulating and would let outsiders dictate how Indiana used water.

But Daniels signed the document after changes were made, and environmental policy director Kari Evans said he remains on board. "Our big water users are generally in support of the concept we've been talking about," Evans said. "At this point, I don't see any obstacles that will be difficult to overcome."

MICHIGAN: House and Senate bills have been introduced to ratify the pact, which Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm supports. Sen. Patricia Birkholz, chairwoman of the environment committee, said prospects were good for approval during the current session, with two-thirds of the Senate signed on as co-sponsors.

"If everybody had their druthers, there's probably one or two things they'd change," said Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck. But it's a powerful weapon against would-be raiders, she added. "There are a lot of thirsty states and thirsty countries that covet our water in a big way."

Michigan has the most Great Lakes frontage of any state and is almost entirely within the basin. Historically, it's been strongly anti-diversion yet reluctant to limit withdrawals for consumption in its own back yard. But the Legislature in 2006 enacted a water use law designed to dovetail with the compact.

A groundwater advisory panel is developing recommendations for follow-up legislation dealing with questions such as how to measure a proposed withdrawal's environmental harm.

MINNESOTA: It has nothing to do but wait for the other states to act. Minnesota was first to ratify the deal, which easily cleared the House and Senate in February.

"This compact will improve and protect the health of the Great Lakes and our economy," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said during a Feb. 20 signing ceremony.

No additional legislation is needed. Minnesota's water protection laws generally are tougher than required under the compact.

NEW YORK: The compact got off to a good start when approved by the Assembly, or lower chamber, in 2006. But it went nowhere in the Senate, despite the backing of lame-duck Gov. George Pataki.

Many senators were unhappy that it lets citizens sue government agencies over alleged compact violations, such as permitting excessive water withdrawals.

"Unfortunately, everybody's got this Machiavellian attitude that there's a plot afoot to open the door to more lawsuits, and the business community is always trying to close those doors," said Sen. George Maziarz, a Niagara County Republican. "There's mistrust on both sides. But I don't see it as a deal-breaker at this point."

He's circulating a memo telling colleagues the compact would bring no more litigation than other environmental laws and water compacts.

OHIO: At first, it appeared things were on a fast track. The House approved the compact last year. It was a priority for outgoing Gov. Bob Taft. But it bogged down in the Senate when conservatives said it would infringe on state sovereignty and property rights. Bills haven't been introduced this year.

Sen. Tim Grendell, the most outspoken critic, is trying to build support among like-minded legislators across the region for reopening negotiations on some issues.

"We suggest putting 24 people in a room - eight governors, eight representatives and eight senators," Grendell said. "Then lock the door and keep them there until they've made the necessary modifications to make this thing right."

He's also sponsoring a bill to create a special committee in Ohio to study the pact, which its supporters fear is a stalling tactic.

WISCONSIN: A special committee chaired by Sen. Neal Kedzie, Republican of Elkhorn, is seeking common ground on a number of issues before bills are introduced to approve the compact and modify Wisconsin law where necessary.

Some of the unresolved matters are technical, such as how large a water withdrawal must be for the compact's environmental standards to kick in. Others are ideological: Should one state have the power to veto a new or increased diversion to a county straddling the basin boundary?

Much of the debate has focused on Waukesha and New Berlin, the suburban Milwaukee cities that want to draw from Lake Michigan. But the biggest issue is how to manage water consumption in a way that protects the Great Lakes for the long term, said Todd Ambs of the state Department of Natural Resources.

"I'm hopeful that we'll have a piece of legislation ready to begin hearings around this fall," Ambs said, adding that he expected the compact to be ratified. "It'll take a little while. But something of this significance frankly ought to take a little while."

PENNSYLVANIA: The compact debate hasn't made much of a ripple here. The only part of Pennsylvania adjacent to the Great Lakes is the far northwestern corner, with 40 miles of Lake Erie frontage. Some of the north-central part of the state drains into Lake Ontario.

A series of public meetings will begin in April to educate interested groups, said Brian Hill, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. As in Indiana and Wisconsin, the goal is to develop a widely accepted implementation plan before it's introduced.

No organized opposition has emerged, Hill said.

"The biggest challenge there may be just getting the Legislature to focus on the compact," said Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation.

ONTARIO AND QUEBEC: The two Canadian provinces within the Great Lakes watershed signed a separate, nonbinding agreement with the states similar to the compact.

Quebec's assembly has ratified the agreement but hasn't yet updated its water use laws. The Liberal party lost majority status in the March election and will need help from other parties to pass legislation. But all three of the province's major parties are considered supportive of the water agreement, said David Naftzger, director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Several departments in the Ontario government have been studying statutes and regulations that will need revision under the agreement, Naftzger said. Its provincial legislature is expected to consider a package within the next few months that would ratify the agreement and make the necessary legal adjustments.
 
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