Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hold A Hearing On The Great Lakes Compact Bill

The special session called to ratify the Great Lakes Compact and to adopt a bill that outlines how that Compact's provisions will be implemented in Wisconsin should not take place without a public hearing.

The special session, initially scheduled to begin today, has been delayed a week or two because the details of the implementing bill are still being filled in.

So now there is adequate time to include a hearing in the legislative process and much justification and need to do so.

I have reported on this blog that there are substantial changes in amendments being discussed privately in or around the State Capitol by legislators, state officials and special interests that alter, and in some cases, weaken the bill to which they will be attached - - State Senate bill 523.

That bill to implement the Compact in Wisconsin passed in March on a bi-partisan vote of 26-6, following...yes...a packed public hearing in Kenosha.

The public cares a great deal about this bill, but too often has been shut out of developments involving the crucial, eight-state agreement to manage the Great Lakes.

That should not be the Wisconsin way, especially on the eve of next Tuesday's Earth Day, founded by former Governor and US Senator Gaylord Nelson, the state's iconic environmental leader.

The amendments circulating around the Capitol weaken SB 523 in at least these areas, notable because they undermine the spirit of the Compact and its focus on water conservation through standard-setting and intentional planning:

* Mandatory statewide water conservation has been changed to voluntary programs.

* Diversion approvals, especially in what could be a lengthy interim period between the time that Gov. Jim Doyle signs what the legislature passes and final final final ratification by the other Great Lakes states and the US Congress.

What is being added to the Wisconsin bill to apply during the interim period is legal, precedent status to two ongoing diversions that have been allowed to pipe Lake Michigan water outside of the Great Lakes basin in Wisconsin that do not meet the review standards and procedures mandated by the Compact.

The key diversion language added is said to be "historical applications" or "interpretations" - - and that lowers the review standard because the Compact mandates that all diversions outside of the Great Lakes basin must get the approval of all the other Great Lakes states, and must promise return flow of the diverted water.

Citing historical applications or interpretations gives legal status to the Menomonee Falls 1999 diversion sanctioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources without the approval of the other states or return of the diverted water to the Great Lakes basin.

In the other relevant precedent, a diversion was granted in 1989 to Pleasant Prairie without all the other Great Lakes states' approval, and the city was not required to fully complete its return flow of the diverted water for 20 years.

* Other amendments circulating fail to spell our in detail what kind of water conservation plans a community seeking an out-of-basin diversion have in place when it applies for Great Lakes water.

These and other questions about this major piece of legislation could and should be answered during at least one public hearing.

There is nothing to be lost, and much to be gained - - not only in the quality of the information that would be forthcoming, but in the formal inclusion of the general public in a process that has been marred from the outset by secrecy.

The City of New Berlin's initial application for a Lake Michigan diversion in 2006 was disclosed by Michigan reviewers who had received it from Wisconsin's DNR.

And two applications for Lake Michigan diversions were made by the City of Waukesha confidentially to Gov. Doyle and were only disclosed after I discovered them in the files of the Waukesha Water Utility through an Open Records request.

It's time to break this pattern and open up the process.

If the amendments to the bill are the insignificant "clarifications" as claimed by the proponents of the compromise deal to move the Compact legislation compromise forward, then let's have the amendments displayed at a hearing and give the public a chance to see them prior to a vote.


Anonymous said...

Maybe Tuesday would be a good day to organize a rally for the capitol steps and call for public input on the Great Lakes water compact. I'd guess the usual Madison crowd would be game to do something for Earth Day. (Possible rain is forecasted for Tuesday though.)

James Rowen said...

A good idea, rain or shine.

Have you asked your legislators to schedule a hearing?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, as of August last year I don't live in the state anymore. (Otherwise, I would have contacted my rep by now, and I may have already raised the issue in the past.)

The way the rallies often work is a speech or two by a few folks, possibly a rep, then the crowd seeks out their own representative in the hallways of the capitol.