Great Lakes protection among state's failures
By James Rowen
Published December 7, 2007
When it comes to water policy in Wisconsin, you can call 2007 "The Year of Living Indifferently."
December has anniversaries marking failures of will in our state -- one on the part of state government, and the other by the state's major media.
On Dec. 13, 2005, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states and the premiers of the two Canadian Great Lakes provinces met in Milwaukee and signed an agreement creating a cooperative management plan -- a compact -- to protect Great Lakes water.
It took these chief executives' representatives and other stakeholders more than four years to negotiate what is known as the Great Lakes Compact -- essentially an agreement with some give-and-take and an overarching goal: preserving the world's largest supply of fresh water by promoting conservation in the Great Lakes basin and establishing standards before allowing diversions from it.
Pretty logical stuff, made more urgent by a warming climate, falling lake levels, pollution and invasive species already pressuring the Great Lakes.
To go into full effect, the agreement must be approved by all eight U.S. Great Lakes states' legislatures and Congress.
To date, Illinois and Minnesota have approved the compact; and Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have bills under consideration.
Wisconsin, host to that Dec. 13, 2005, signing ceremony in a Milwaukee hotel ballroom, is the sole state without a bill under review.
In late 2006 through the fall of 2007, a state legislative study committee worked on a draft bill's language, but the panel disbanded without a consensus.
Instrumental in the failure: pressure from conservative business interests and their legislative water-carriers from Waukesha County, who argued that an agreement with the other states jeopardized Wisconsin sovereignty and Waukesha County development.
Yet without the compact, possible water diversions to Waukesha County remain essentially blocked by a 1986 federal law that is tougher than the compact.
The longer Wisconsin delays implementing the Great Lakes Compact, the longer the Great Lakes remain vulnerable to mismanagement, climate change, or worse -- thirsty Western and Southern states could amend or repeal the federal law's protections altogether, breaking open the diversion floodgates to faraway locales.
Dec. 20, 2006, marks another related failure -- the one-year anniversary of the major media's failure to cover an important legal opinion about Great Lakes water policy issued by Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
In 2006, the Waukesha County cities of New Berlin and Waukesha had, through different means, asked Wisconsin officials to endorse or approve diverting Lake Michigan water across the boundary of the Great Lakes basin.
In Waukesha's case, an application been made twice confidentially to Gov. Jim Doyle, who turned the pitches aside.
In New Berlin's case, a more formal application was given a preliminary thumbs-up by the Department of Natural Resources, which sent it to the other Great Lakes states and provinces for review -- and has indicated it could approve the application (still pending) on its own.
As with the city of Waukesha applications, approval could move a lot of water out of the Great Lakes basin and set a troubling precedent across the entire Great Lakes region.
What Lautenschlager's lengthy, annotated opinion said was that Wisconsin officials were bound by federal law, which requires the approval of the other states to divert water, and therefore Wisconsin did not have the authority to unilaterally approve a diversion from the Great Lakes.
It was a clear signal to all parties to get cracking on compact approval, which establishes uniform, reasonable diversion procedures for all the Great Lakes states.
You'd think Lautenschlager's opinion would have been treated by media, water-seeking communities and state officials as the definitive word on diversions in Wisconsin.
Instead, the DNR edges closer to approving New Berlin's application, urging New Berlin officials to meet with potential diverters.
And as late as June 27, 2007 -- six months after Lautenschlager's opinion -- the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the DNR believed it "has the authority under existing water laws to approve out-of-basin diversions."
Sunshine by reporters and editors on the Lautenschlager opinion could greatly inform the people and guide water management policy in Wisconsin -- and help get the compact passed.
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who blogs at thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/. E-mail: email@example.com