Protect waters before it's too late, backers say
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published November 27, 2007
Great Lakes advocates are hoping threats posed by climate change will turn up the heat on regional lawmakers to pass a set of new rules blocking water diversions to other areas of the country.
There are several climatological models predicting how a warmer Midwest will affect lake levels for the world's largest freshwater system, and almost all of them forecast bad news.
Pointing to one that calls for a drop of about four feet for Lakes Michigan and Huron in the coming decades, Wayne State University Law School professor Noah Hall said Tuesday the region could be about to face a "one-two punch."
He said the predicted plummet likely will come at a time when parched areas of the country will be increasingly aggressive about turning to the Great Lakes for relief.
Hall called existing laws to prohibit such large-scale water transfers "inadequate," but said Great Lakes states can steel themselves for future water battles by passing the Great Lakes compact.
The compact is a set of rules endorsed two years ago by all eight Great Lakes governors that would ban most diversions from the Great Lakes basin. The compact does make allowances for communities that straddle the basin dividing line, provided those communities send their treated wastewater back to the lakes.
The compact needs to be approved by each state legislature, as well as Congress. So far, only Minnesota and Illinois have adopted it. Legislation is progressing in New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Things aren't going so well in Wisconsin and Ohio. Both states have significant populations that lie just beyond the Great Lakes basin dividing line, and some lawmakers are worried that the rules would inappropriately throttle economic development in those areas.
During a teleconference Tuesday, conservationists urged lawmakers to take a look at the bigger picture, and they said that picture shows that the best chance to protect the lakes is to address the diversion issue before wells elsewhere run dry.
They pointed to water-strapped places such as Atlanta and the Southwest as examples of places that could soon be looking lustily in our direction.
"Water shortages and the pains and the strife they create are only likely to worsen," said Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation, which funded a study released Tuesday evaluating existing regional water laws in light of the predicted effects of climate change on the Great Lakes.
"We have a remarkable opportunity in the Great Lakes region to act before crises hit," she said.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former Department of Natural Resources secretary, said he is confident Wisconsin lawmakers will introduce legislation approving the compact before year's end.
He said its passage is critical, and said Wisconsin has an obligation to work with the other Great Lakes states on passing rules that will allow the water to be managed as a regional asset.