Compact to protect Great Lakes
Written by Wisconsin State Journal   
Sunday, 25 February 2007 17:22

In fall 2004, Madison's Peter Annin traveled across the bed of the vanished Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.  Once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, the sea has shrunk to one-fourth its original surface area and has lost 90 percent of its volume. In little more than 50 years, a massive water diversion effort to turn the Central Asian desert into an agricultural Mecca also destroyed one of the world's greatest inland seas.

As a result of his visit, Annin has a unique perspective on the upcoming debate in the state Legislature over passage of a massive plan to protect the water in the Great Lakes - the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

It is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation to come before the Legislature in years, some say, and it is likely to be voted upon this session.

The pact would govern how eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces manage the world's greatest freshwater resource for the next century at the least. Endorsed by the Great Lakes Council of Governors in 2005, the compact would regulate diversions of water from the lakes, both by entities outside of the region and by communities and industry within the Great Lakes watershed or basin.

It would, in essence, say who can use water from the lakes and set limits on how much can be used.

Though differences in climate and environmental awareness make it unlikely that the tragic story of the Aral Sea could be repeated here, Annin, the author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars," said it remains a cautionary tale that should be heeded. He said the unnerving experience left him with a nagging awareness of the frailty of environmental treasures we frequently take for granted, including such seemingly timeless and unchangeable landmarks as the Great Lakes.

Less than 50 years ago, people living on the shores of the Aral Sea would not have believed someone who told them that the lake would disappear in their lifetimes.

"Now," Annin said, "it takes five hours in an SUV to travel from the old shoreline to the new waterside. You're riding for hours and hours on a dry lakebed in a place where the water used to be 40 and 50 feet over your head and where there was a thriving fishery and fishing fleets. It's remarkable. It's shocking."

Studied in committee

Others, like Annin, see much at stake as lawmakers consider the fate of the proposed compact. For the historic agreement to become law it has to be approved by legislatures in all eight Great Lakes states as well as the U.S. Congress. Last week, Minnesota became the first state to formally approve the compact, partly because the state already has strict water use laws in place.

In Wisconsin, which doesn't have an overarching water use law, the compact is so far suffering the fate of much proposed legislation. It's being studied in a committee.

Members of the committee and others involved in pushing for approval of the agreement say they are confident the document will go before the Legislature this year and most are equally confident it will be approved.

State Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, chairs the 18-member committee (made up of ten legislators and ten members of the public) which is studying the compact and said it is the largest committee and most complex issue he's dealt with in his legislative career. He said there are disagreements among committee members over specific parts of the compact and even over whether such an agreement is necessary. But there is general agreement that additional protections are needed, Kedzie said.

"Do we need to treat the water of this basin with more care? I think you'd get a resounding 'Yes,' " Kedzie said.

Great value

The importance of the Great Lakes as a natural resource can't be overstated. The lakes contain nine-tenths of the nation's supply of fresh water and 30 million people in cities such as Chicago and Toronto get their drinking water from the lakes. In Wisconsin alone, industries rely on 187 million gallons a day of Great Lakes water to do business, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The state's utilities pump a total of 3,570 million gallons a day from the lakes.

The value of the lakes goes well beyond the practical use of the water. As Annin points out, they have tremendous cultural and ecological value.

Those of us who live in the region of these lakes, Annin said, are the stewards of one of the world's greatest natural treasures. "I like to tell people," he said, "that we live next to the Himalayas of water."

The threats to the lakes are equally impressive. Drought and possibly climate change are causing record low water levels in the lakes. Lake Superior is at its lowest levels in 80 years. The fear is that unregulated withdrawal of water from the lakes, combined with nature's impacts, could spell disaster - altered shorelines, damage to recreational pursuits such as boating and fishing, less water for municipal and industrial use, harm to the region's flora and fauna.

When most people think of the Great Lakes and water diversions, they think of other states such as Nevada plotting ways to spirit water away for sprinkling golf courses and desert lawns. And those concerns about water-hungry states account at least partly for the genesis of the compact. In 1999, just before the initial discussions about the compact, a Canadian company floated the idea of shipping water from Lake Ontario to Asia. And various ideas, including piping water to Arizona or Western Canada, have also surfaced over the years.

Water diversion

But there were also pressing concerns about diversions in the Great Lakes states themselves. Chicago, for example, diverts 2.1 billion gallons of Lake Michigan water a day for drinking water and flood control, one of the largest withdrawals from within the basin and one which would be exempted under the compact.

Under the proposed compact, diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin would be prohibited, except under very limited circumstances. The basin is all the land from which rain and melting snow drains into the Great Lakes. The basin for the lakes stretches from Western Ontario and Minnesota to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. It covers an area the size of France.

About one-third of Wisconsin's land area, and half its population, are within the Great Lakes basin and would be subject to the compact's regulations.

Especially affected by the compact would be communities such as Waukesha and New Berlin, both of which want to pump drinking water from Lake Michigan because their wells are becoming polluted by radium. New Berlin, which straddles the basin boundary, would be able to withdraw water without the approval of all the Great Lakes governors if it met numerous requirements, such as returning the water to Lake Michigan.

But the city of Waukesha illustrates a problem that some critics see as a stumbling block to passage of the compact. Under the agreement, diversion requests from cities that are completely outside of the basin but within counties that straddle the basin boundary would be subject to a vote by all eight Great Lakes governors. And the vote, under the compact, would have to be unanimous.

Matt Moroney, executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association in Milwaukee and a member of the committee studying the compacts, has a problem with such veto power and its potential impact on Wisconsin.

"A governor who is able to dictate water policy in another region, that's not a policy I'd agree with," Moroney said. "I think it would be very difficult for our group to support a compact that allows a one-vote veto."

Business concerns

Other business groups have expressed similar concerns - that the compact would put Wisconsin communities and industries at a competitive disadvantage to other states. Under the compact, states are being asked to monitor water use and would have to set limits on the amounts of water that can be withdrawn without regulation and permitting.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce argued in a letter to the committee that the compact "will place our industry at a serious competitive disadvantage with forty-two other states who will not be subject to the sweeping permit requirements contemplated by this legislation."

Todd Ambs, head of the DNR's water division and also a member of the committee, called such concerns "red herrings." In the long run, he said, the compact will do far more to protect rather than hurt the economies of Great Lakes states.

"This is the water belt of the nation," Ambs said. "If we do this right and sustainably manage our water into the future, it is absolutely the right thing to do and will allow us to also have a sustainable economy into the future . . . If someone wants to be wasteful with Great Lakes water, sure they could have problems with the compact."

Right thing

Like Ambs, Annin believes that guarding the Great Lakes through the compact is important to do not only because of the economy but because it is the right thing for a responsible society to do. In 2004, during his trip to Uzbekistan and the diminished Aral Sea, he saw firsthand the price that a people can pay for not protecting such a critical natural resource.

In the village of Muynak, a former fishing town on the shore of the dried-up sea, he visited with fishermen who had lost their way of life.

"They talked about the water and how clear it used to be," Annin recalled, "and their lives hanging out at the wharves and how they used to go out and fish . . . Now, they're just dumbstruck. They can't fathom what happened. Their purpose in life has been taken away."
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