Saturday, April 14, 2007

Wisconsin's Great Lakes Study Committee Shuts Down

The special committee charged with writing legislation for Wisconsin to adopt the first-ever amendments to the US-Canada Great Lakes Compact has not met since December, and I've posted several commentaries about the delay.

The amendments, four years in the making, are designed to protect the health of the Great Lakes by establishing water conservation standards across the Great Lakes region.

And they'd also ratify formal, reasonable procedures through which communities near the Great Lakes basin boundaries could obtain permission from the eight Great Lakes states for diversions of Great Lakes water.

But politicians and business leaders from Waukesha County have complained loudly that the amendents were too restrictive - - even though they provided the first procedural roadmap though which communities like Waukesha and New Berlin could apply for diversions of water from Lake Michigan.

Even though New Berlin has begun the application process, and Waukesha could be next in line, it appears as if the naysayers have carried the day:

Committee chairman Sen. Neal Kedzie has informed the committee in an April 3rd letter that the committee will not be meeting for several more months, with no date, not even a specific month, suggested.

In his letter, Kedzie says it's impossible for all members of the committee to agree on a meeting date.

Like many of you who have also served on committees and boards, I think we know that when people want to meet, and have a major task to finish, they do what they have to do to get a meeting scheduled.

Or they settle on a date which the largest number of members can make, with the rest participating by phone (I believe the conference call is a known procedure at the State Capitol) so the task at hand gets finished.

Especially if it is a matter of public policy this urgent, since the Compact amendments cannot become operational until all eight Great Lakes states approve them.

Minnesota has already done so.

My analysis: Kedzie cannot fashion a consensus on the crucial divisions among the members and does not want to preside over a public squabble, or worse, a debacle that would reverberate across the Great Lakes - - a vote on the committee, with its disproportionate Waukesha County representation, that recommends against the amendments.

A clue: Mary Lazich, New Berlin's state senator and a committee member, has spoken in support publicly of one water expert whose advice for the committee, she says, is "chucking it entirely and starting from scratch."

Paradoxically, without the new amendments, what remains as the existing process governing Great Lakes diversions is a 1986 federal statute that is very brief, but includes, in an even less favorable form, the very provision that some movers-and-shakers in Waukesha found so unreasonable in the Compact: That all eight Great Lakes states must approve any community's diversion of water beyond the boundaries of the Great Lakes basin.

If past practice is a guide, especially with Waukesha County leaders being so outspoken against the amendments, Michigan, at a minimum, will likely veto any effort by New Berlin or Waukesha to bring Lake Michigan water across the boundary.

Under the federal law, a vetoing state's governor doesn't even have to state a reason.

With the Kedzie committee now dead in the water, look to Gov. Doyle and perhaps other more reasonable legislators to assert leadership and set up another process that can break the logjam and help Wisconsin ratify the Compact amendments.

Another possibility - - and one that could be a so-called nuclear scenario should a community have a diversion application rejected under current federal law: A court challenge.

Knock out the law, and the free-for-all to divert Great Lakes water that brought about the Compact in 1985 in the first place (a company wanted to ship Great Lakes water by tanker to Asia!) would be underway.

If that's what certain Waukesha County interests are planning, if they could be so short-sighted, the rest of the Great Lakes region needs to get prepared.

The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world's fresh surface waters, and should not be so thoughtlessly mismanged.


James Wigderson said...

I would find it very hard to believe that a court challenge would be successful given that the previous compact is not only an agreement between the states but also with Canada. Assuming that such an agreement was ratified by Congress (an assumption on my part) that would have to be one helluva court challenge. It would probably be cheaper to get the radium out of the wells.

James Rowen said...

The law is always open to challenge. In fact, these Compact amendments were written, in part, to set up a process with standards that could better survive a challenge.

Congress also has to approve these amendments, once the states adopt them.

At any time, the Congress could also take control of the compact procedures, and set up its own standards as amendments to the 1986 federal law, or in a new law.