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Great Lakes Article:

Diversion rules face rough waters to gain approval
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 money."

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," he said.

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."

 

 

 

 

 

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