Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day 2007: Mixed Report Card For Wisconsin

A fair grade for Wisconsin's Earth Day 2007 status:


On the plus side, water - - quality, quantity, management - - is on the table as an issue, certainly in southeastern Wisconsin, and to a certain extent, statewide, primarily because the Great Lakes Compact is up for discussion.

And because Lake Michigan's water level is declining, setting off alarm bells among Great Lakes shippers and the state's recreation and fishing industries.

So consciousness is up, and discussion is underway, and some water planning is taking place in some communities, and regionally.

But it's not clear if the outcomes of this debate and planning will be genuine progress towards better care and use of the water we have, or rationalizations and exceptions and excuses that will enable greater demand for water farther and farther from Lake Michigan, existing infrastructure and available workers inside the Great Lakes basin.

For every positive step taken in the last year - - Milwaukee's office of sustainability gaining credibility, Waukesha's lawn-sprinkling ordinance's first year of operation, or its city council's rejection of a subdivision and annexation too close to the Vernon Marsh - - there have been negatives: look no farther than Waukesha-area political and business opposition to proposed amendments to the Great Lakes Compact.

The Compact would establish rules and standards for assessing requests for Great Lakes diversions in eight Great Lakes states, with emphasis placed on water conservation and proven need.

The opposition, led by State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), and the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce, threatens to block Compact implementation in Wisconsin and could lead to the 22-year-old Compact's collapse across the entire Great Lakes region.

Either result would be a blow to the Great Lakes; in Wisconsin, water is held in trust for the public, according to the state constitution; Wisconsin officials need to respect that heritage by stewarding the state's waters, not taking them for granted or allowing them to be mismanaged.

Earth Day, as we know, was the creation of Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin's great environmental champion. He left his stamp on the state, the country and the world.

Wisconsin needs more of the Nelson spirit in public policy, the collective mindset and the common purpose.

In southeastern Wisconsin, the need is critical.

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