Wisconsin GOP legislators look to hamstring Great Lakes Compact


The Great Lakes Compact is an ambitious, if not improbable, proposition: Eight states set out to ratify a single governing agreement designed to ensure water quality and conservation of resources within the Great Lakes Basin, which comprises roughly 22 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

Seven years in the making, the compact was first adopted by Minnesota early last year, followed by Illinois, New York and Indiana. The governments of Ontario and Québec agreed to become “associate members” of the compact. With legislation currently pending in Pennsylvania and Michigan, prospects for ratification looked good. But now GOP legislators in Wisconsin are trying to gut an essential provision of the compact, threatening to send the whole process back to square one.

The point of contention surrounds the diversion of Great Lakes waters for purposes of commercial and residential development. Water diverted to communities outside of the basin is unlikely to return to the Great Lakes. Record low lakes levels during the last year have conservationists fearing that the Great Lakes may become another Aral Sea, which has been reduced to a fraction of its original size after the Soviets diverted water from its tributaries for irrigation.

In its present form, the compact allows each of the 10 signatories to exercise a veto right over any plan to divert water from the Great Lakes basin–a provision that scares developers accustomed to having their way with the area’s water resources. Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, and Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, are demanding the compact be amended so that a simple majority vote among participating states can authorize a diversion. Huebsch and Gunderson argue that “the only fair and just resolution is that these types of decisions must be made by a majority vote.”

David Dempsey, noted Great Lakes author and former Clinton administration appointee to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, called the complaints regarding veto authority “absurd,” pointing out that such a provision was already established by the Great Lakes Charter of 1985. “There already is one-state veto power over water diversions but it didn’t stop Pleasant Prairie, WI, from getting one in 1989 and Akron, OH, in 1998,” says Dempsey. “and if groundwater, which feeds lakes and streams, is not covered by the public trust, then Nestle and other giant corporations can own it and drastically deplete the Great Lakes.”

If the compact is to be amended, the entire process would begin anew with negotiations among the eight states and two provinces–eight years of work that none are eager to duplicate. The Madison Capital Times predicted that “some day they’ll write the history of how this generation either saved the Great Lakes from poachers and polluters or how it allowed the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water to dwindle and die.”

Currently, the compact remains in committee in the Wisconsin State Assembly where Republicans could either make sure it stays there or simply end the legislative the session without taking up the issue.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center found that 80 percent of Wisconsinites supported ratification of the compact in its current form. But rapidly growing communities in the Milwaukee region that lie outside of the basin have a vested interest in access to Lake Michigan’s water. Much of the focus has been on Waukesha County, which has already received an exemption in the compact but seeks to position itself for future development.

Wisconsinite James Rowan, a former journalist, political adviser and author of The Political Environment, explained the dynamics at work in an interview with Minnesota Monitor:

The opposition is about several things: growth in Waukesha County, definitely, but also ideological resistance to government controls and regulations across-the-board, which for the GOP works well, and also helps explain the opposition from major statewide business and trade associations.

Since our current governor is a Democrat, and also the chair of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the GOP leadership in the Assembly (Democrats control the State Senate) see blocking the Compact as a partisan method of embarrassing the governor. This aspect is regrettable, as the Compact was drafted with bi-partisan/non-partisan input and goals.

I think that letters to media and elected officials along the Minnesota and Wisconsin border would be useful, stressing the long history of cooperation between the states and the overriding need for a big-picture, regional approach to Great Lakes stewardship. It is what has helped sustain the Boundary Waters, for example. Both states have economies tied closely to water. The Great Lakes are the keys to the region’s historical identities and quality of life.

Continued population growth and urban development inside and outside of the basin have made fresh water an increasingly coveted resource in the region. As the local politics play out in Wisconsin, the states and provinces that have already ratified the Great Lakes Compact can do nothing but wait.