Diversion rules face rough waters to
Great Lakes hearing draws 100 in Chicago
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published September 8th, 2004
Chicago high school teacher Andy Pearsons pedaled down
to Navy Pier Wednesday afternoon after hearing on the
radio earlier in the day news of a public hearing concerning
Great Lakes water diversions
He was the only one of about 100 people who attended the
hearing, sponsored by the Council of Great Lakes Governors,
to show up in shorts and T-shirt. Standing with his bike
helmet under his arm, and amid a forest of blue blazers
and a sea of black loafers, he confessed to feeling a
bit out of place. But just a bit.
The meeting, after all, was held on a pier jutting into
his favorite place, Lake Michigan.
"The idea of selling (the lake) off to a bottled
water company or to an arid nation doesn't sit well with
me," said the 32-year-old, whose first job was on
a charter fishing boat operating out of his former hometown
of Muskegon, Mich. "There are better ways to make
Most everybody agrees the Great Lakes should never be
drained to fuel subdivisions and flood golf courses in
faraway places such as Phoenix or Denver.
But deciding who is entitled to Great Lakes water and
who is not could prove to be tricky business.
As chairman of the group appointed by the council to
develop new rules for Great Lakes water diversions, Sam
Speck has to figure out how to protect the country's most
treasured reservoir of freshwater from overexploitation.
At the same time, the group of governor appointees must
figure out how to satisfy a growing number of increasingly
thirsty communities and industries in the region that
believe they have a right to tap Great Lakes water.
"I don't know if we can do this, to be honest,"
Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources,
said minutes before a public hearing started.
Speck noted that the new rules his group has proposed
must be unanimously approved by all eight Great Lakes
governors and all eight legislatures. Any governor, any
legislature, could hold the whole thing up.
"Nobody," Speck said, "is going to get
everything they want."
New rules considered
As the law currently works, communities inside the massive
watershed known as the Great Lakes Basin are entitled
to a virtually unlimited supply of Great Lakes water.
The rationale is that most of the water pulled from the
Great Lakes but kept inside the dividing line eventually
flows back into the lakes. But water pumped beyond the
basin line never returns; in Wisconsin, it flows toward
the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Under existing law, any request to pipe even a drop of
water beyond the basin dividing line requires the unanimous
approval of all eight Great Lakes governors.
The governors don't have to give any reason for denying
an application, and since 1986 only the cities of Akron,
Ohio, and Wisconsin's Pleasant Prairie have been successful
in getting their approval.
But most agree a system that gives each governor veto
authority over diversions probably wouldn't hold up in
court, largely because the governors presently have no
standard criteria for judging the merits of a withdrawal
request. A governor can say "no" for no good
reason at all.
The new rules, often referred to as Annex 2001, are expected
to change that.
Under the proposed rule changes, an out-of-basin city
requesting 1 million gallons of water a day or more would
receive approval if it agrees to pump the treated wastewater
back into the basin, and funds a project that would actually
improve the lakes, such as a wetland restoration.
The return flow provision might be possible for an out-of-basin
city that lies close to the lake, but could make it prohibitively
expensive for areas outside the region.
A community also would have to show it has no reasonable
access to another water supply and would have to demonstrate
that it is not wasting the water it already has, under
the proposed rules.
The new rules also would require six of the eight Great
Lakes governors to approve any new in-basin requests to
consume more than 5 million gallons a day. Consumption
is defined as water taken by a community or industry inside
the basin but not returned to the lakes. Such water is
lost due to evaporation or through incorporation into
other products, such as beer or paint. Under current rules,
there are no such restrictions.
Several objections raised
The proposals aren't entirely popular with everyone.
The city of Waukesha, for example, lies just outside
the basin and wants Lake Michigan water. It doesn't want
to pump its treated wastewater back to the lake. City
leaders say it would be prohibitively expensive and could
dry up areas along the Fox River, where the city currently
sends its treated wastewater.
George Kuper, representing the Council of Great Lakes
Industries, told the group the proposal is fatally flawed.
He said the governor-approval provision for in-basin
communities and industries could create bureaucratic chaos,
erode local control of the resource and could harm efforts
to attract industry into the region.
"What we're trying to do is increase the availability
of the resources for the ecosystem needs and human needs,"
But he said, in the governors' efforts to protect the
lakes, they are actually "locking up the resource."
Others think the laws aren't tough enough.
John Andersen of the Nature Conservancy said at Wednesday's
hearing that he would like to see a tightening in the
rules that would require approval for withdrawals above
1 million gallons per day. The 1 million gallon per day
threshold only kicks in if it occurs over a 120-day period
in any given year. A problem with that, he said, is it
can allow diversions well more than 1 million gallons
a day if they last less than three months.
He called it a "loophole," and one that could
substantially benefit irrigators, who often need water
for only a month or two late in the growing season.
Others said Wednesday that they are just happy the governors
are moving forward with a set of rules that took three
years to draft.
"Right now, there are no rules to the game,"
said Lake Michigan Federation's Cameron Davis. "And
as the demand for water increases, so does the demand
for rules that everybody can play by."