Friday, March 16, 2007

State Committee On Great Lakes Water Stuck In Neutral

One of the more consistently undercovered stories this winter in Wisconsin has been the disagreement, and now apparent stalemate, among members of a state legislative study committee drafting legislation to help protect the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes. You wouldn't have thought this would be so hard.

The legislation, if drafted, would approve and implement amendments to the US-Canada Great Lakes Compact, establishing first-ever rules, standards and procedures governing diversions of water out of the Great Lakes basin.

Without these amendments, and their approval in all eight US Great Lakes states, communities and states could push to divert water without taking the common interest into consideration, and would not be compelled to return an equal amount of diverted water back to the Great Lakes basin.

That could stress the Great Lakes by reducing water levels, making the remaining water and ecosystem more susceptible to damage from invasive species and pollution.

And jeopardize the economies of all the Great Lakes states and provinces, Wisconsin included, where water is a key component in recreation and manufacturing.

Wisconsin was a leader in getting the Compact adopted in 1985.

And its negotiators participated in four years of meetings to help craft the proposed amendments (Gov. Jim Doyle is now the co-chair of the Great Lakes governors' council that will eventually implement and enforce the amendmed Compact).

But powerful business and political leaders in Waukesha County have objected at the study committee to the amendments, and especially to the requirement that all eight US Great Lakes states would have to approve any diversion request.

(You can read the committee staff's most recent memo outlining the areas of failed consensus in key areas that suggest impasse here.)

The international agreement's guiding principle is unanimity of state action on diversions because the Great Lakes are shared water resources held in trust for the common good.

Minnesota has already approved the Compact amendments, but Wisconsin's study committee last met in December; reports from the State Capitol suggest the committee could close up shop without forwarding a recommendation to the legislature.

That could lead to no bill to implement the Compact moving through the legislature. could result in multiple bills being introduced, with so many deviations from the proposed Compact amendents that none would pass a divided, partisan legislature.

Or...what comes out of the legislature could have radical changes to the proposed amendments, as a bill that did not incorporate the basic law and science discussed at the committee, meaning that other states would see Wisconsin as a renegade on conservation and cooperation, putting the entire agreement at risk.

Creating another study committee is possible because the current committee is chaired by a Republican Senator, Neal Kedzie (Elkhorn), and the committee membership and chairmanship do not reflect the Senate Democrats' post 2006 election majority.

Regardless, delay only sends a message of uncertainty about Wisconsin's commitment to resource management and regional cooperation across the Great Lakes states.

And it keeps Wisconsin communities like New Berlin and Waukesha that are interested in diversions in legal limbo, so the 'Waukesha County-First' objectors on the committee are pursuing a self-defeating strategy.

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