Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Great Lakes Compact Deal: Some Details Known, Others Not

Though the participants at today's news conference about the Great Lakes Compact hosted in New Berlin by Gov. Jim Doyle have released few details about what it is they have agreed to approve at a special legislative session next week - - and there may be surprises when the fine print emerges - - it is clear that a key element of the Compact has been retained:

That all eight states will have to approve any movement of Great Lakes water to a site that is completely outside of the Great Lakes basin, meaning that a single state could veto such an application.

This is important for the credibility of the Compact, the likelihood that it can move successfully through all the states and Congressional ratification, and the long-term health of the Great Lakes, too.

Republican legislators had screamed about that provision - - one literally - - demanding that it should be amended to a majority vote of the states, and demanded also that the agreement be renegotiated despite seven years of such negotiations and debates - - even though four of the states had already approved it.

A renegotiation was politically, and technically, unrealistic and impossible.

But that provision was always going to stay in the Compact for one main reason:

It is already in federal law, and has been since 1986.

It is there as an important check against any Great Lakes state unilaterally making a deal to send water to a faraway state or country to make money at the expense of a region's shared resource.

It appears that what Republicans got in blocking the Compact in the Assembly, threatening its approval this year, is language that clarifies and smooths the diversion application process and the more precise standards that those applications have to meet.

I hear that issues such as what exactly constitutes the "return flow" of diverted water that the Compact requires be pledged and achieved to maintain the Great Lakes' levels could still raise problems for conservationists, and perhaps with the other states, or litigants.

Specifically, will return flow be required to be made directly to the Great Lakes' source?

And is there a grace period before which that return flow must begin, and becomes 100%?

All eight states must approve laws incorporating versions of the Compact that are not materially different. That's what a Compact is all about.

In the end, the major political forces each got something in the compromise in addition to being able to say they worked together:

Gov. Jim Doyle will get a bill approved.

As the chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, Doyle needed Wisconsin to adopt a bill. Now Wisconsin can toss the hot potato to Pennsylvania, where approval is a certainty, and to Michigan and Ohio, where things are going to take longer - - and a bill without the "majority rule" amendment or any other obvious poison pill.

And I say "obvious" because the drafters haven't yet released the text.

Republicans can say they didn't lose anything on the eight-state approval standard's inclusion, because it's already in federal law, and they got a slightly-better bill that will speed the City of Waukesha's diversion application and refine its preparation.

In the end, for Waukesha, its application will still need the other states' approval, so how it pledges to return diverted water and demonstrates conservation commitments will be crucial to the other states' approval.

New Berlin wins, too.

Under the Compact - - but not the current federal law - - New Berlin is in a special category, being a city literally straddling the Great Lakes basin.

According to the Compact, New Berlin needs only the approval of the home state, not the other seven, because some of its land is inside the Great Lakes basin.

This is why it was absurd for State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), to be calling for the Compact's obstruction, because the longer the Compact was held, the longer New Berlin remained blocked from Lake Michigan water by the eight-state federal approval standard - - a standard lowered in the Compact to approval by Wisconsin only.

Once the Compact is approved in Wisconsin, and New Berlin gets Wisconsin's pro forma OK, New Berlin then needs only to locate a willing seller - - such as Milwaukee, or Oak Creek - - with which to strike a deal for the sale of water for to its land that is west of the basin boundary.

Since the City of Milwaukee already sells water to New Berlin's territory that is east of, and inside the basin boundary, Milwaukee is the logical seller.

When those negotiations begin, one question remains:

Will Milwaukee settle for the wholesale water cost already in the fee schedules for bulk sales to suburbs?

I'd say that's a start, but...

Will it also include the cost of the water and the new pumps and pipes needed to get the water over the boundary basin's elevation - - somewhere between $4-10 million?

I'd say, it better. No way that Milwaukee residents should be paying for that.

And what about a fair share of the development value that Lake Michigan water will bring to New Berlin - - money that will help mitigate losses to Milwaukee's economy as more capital - - liquid as water - - is pumped from Milwaukee to the suburbs?

In other words, payments that reflect the value of water and not its mere, per-gallon cost, which in our water-rich region, is nearly entirely an electricity/pumping charge, with the actual water thrown in for nothing.

Again, I'd say such a fiscal sharing is a necessity. Smart people can figure out a fair formula, because in today's world, we need to be mindful of the full financial and social value of water.

With so many assets already pulled away from the city and spread across the landscape, leaving behind development that is distorted and inequitable, Great Lakes water, if it is to be diverted away from Milwaukee and the basin, must also be used to re-balance the city's relationship to the suburbs and its place in the region.

Anything less will be short-sighted, and a failure of regional stewardship of both water, land and humanity.

Three caveats from now to the end of the Special Session, and then beyond:

1. Don't put it past Wisconsin GOP leaders, or their allies in Ohio's property-rights' fringe element, to see if they can negate the 1986 federal law in court. That would leave the door open to widespread diversions, regardless of the Compact.

2. Don't put it past one or more area governments to establish a new regional water authority in a so-called "straddling community," then legally finagle a way to distribute water through it to other communities that would not apply for diversions on their own.

Let's just say that there are plenty of people interested in finding or creating loopholes through which they could obtain and move Great Lakes water - - even if they pledged to return it.

Along those lines - - communities will be required to return diverted water, but how directly to the source from which it was diverted, and how promptly?

If the return flow can be indirect, or delayed for months or years, then the spirit of the Compact is undermined.

3. So keep an eye on amendments that could be offered prior to the final votes in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate. And later, in law and administrative rules that implement what's in the Compact bill.

Sometimes in the rush to get something done, and be gratified that you worked cooperatively with your opponents, there is a tendency to give up something, or overlook something else, especially if you are dealing with willful or crafty special interests.

Good intentions can have profound but intended long-term consequences - - in this case, precedent-setting for many states- - with regard to the world's largest supply of fresh surface water.

We need the Compact. Let's just make sure we know what we are getting, and that it's the right version.

Twenty-six of 32 State Senators probably didn't get it wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Lakes water diversion.
I wish someone could tell me why we are not restricting the outflow of water under the Blue Water Bridge into the St. Clair River. The last dredging in 1962 lowered Lakes Huron and Michigan
16 inches. I guess you could say we didn't divert water but we continue to defy nature by sending cubic miles of fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean.
There were supposed to be water flow restrictors decades ago but instead we talk to ourselves while the lake levels continue to fall.