Approve the compact and protect the Great Lakes
By Tom Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published January 26, 2008
Two years ago, the governors of the eight states that border the Great Lakes signed the Great Lakes compact. This landmark agreement protects the world's largest freshwater system as well as the environmental and economic benefits the Great Lakes provide for Milwaukee and our region.
The compact sets a clear set of standards for state and local governments to follow regarding water transfers outside the region. These standards are essential to ensure accountability, consistency and fairness among the Great Lakes stakeholders, and to protect our region's critical water resources.
For the protections of the compact to take effect, however, all eight state legislatures must approve the agreement and Congress must ratify it. Currently, Illinois and Minnesota have passed the compact, and specific legislation has been introduced and is moving forward in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
Of the eight Great Lakes states, only Wisconsin has yet to introduce legislation to pass the compact.
Thankfully, that is about to change.
State Sens. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) and John Lehman (D-Racine) will soon introduce the Great Lakes compact for our own Legislature to consider. I urge members to pass this important, bipartisan bill. Never before has there been a more crucial time to protect our freshwater supply - home to 95% of all the fresh surface water in the United States - because the Great Lakes sit in the cross hairs of communities across the country.
This past summer, the Southeast suffered record droughts that drained water reserves in communities across the region. Weather conditions like these, combined with massive urban sprawl in many regions, are forcing cities and states to look toward the Great Lakes to meet their water needs.
If you don't believe that, just listen to people like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey who once ominously declared, "I'm from Texas and down there we understand that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. If we get (control of) it in Washington, we're not going to be buying it. We'll be stealing it. You are going to have to protect your Great Lakes."
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron neared record low water levels this year, and that Lakes Michigan and Huron may be losing 2.5 billion gallons per day because of erosion, according to several Journal Sentinel articles in the past year.
The threats are real, and the time is now. The Great Lakes may be vast, but they are not limitless. With only 1% of its water recharged every year, the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway system is vulnerable because it is finite and at risk for depletion. Mass unregulated diversions would only intensify this challenge.
Without the protections and structure of the Great Lakes compact in place, that is exactly what we invite. Failure to defend the world's largest freshwater system could easily open the door to a "Wild, Wild West," free-for-all approach to Great Lakes water, where anything goes.
Instead of transparency and uniformity, we would see shortsightedness and narrow self-interest driving policy.
Instead of one set of fair principles that all agree to, we could easily see hundreds of communities across the country scrambling madly to siphon off Great Lakes water to the far corners of the country - without ever considering the greater good, or our region's needs.
The compact will allow Wisconsin and the region to keep our Great Lakes full and healthy and will preserve our greatest natural treasure. The compact will protect our water-based economy, keep our boating, swimming and fishing sports vibrant, and give regional straddling-basin communities the opportunity to access Lake Michigan water. Wisconsin and all its citizens win.
The time is now. I urge the Legislature to approve the Great Lakes compact.
Tom Barrett is mayor of Milwaukee.