Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Great Lakes Compact Passes The Congress; Good News...But Lots More Work Ahead

The Great Lakes Compact won overwhelming approval in the US House of Representatives today, and moves to the White House for the president's promised signature.

On balance, this is an important advancement for Great Lakes preservation, and hats off to the many activists and public officials who spent years getting this document created and approved.

Several issues remain.

The first is the need for a companion, Great Lakes cleanup program - - long-discussed, long-delayed. Details here.

The second is remedial action by the states to close the bottled water loophole, a section of the Compact inserted as a favor to Michigan, the most water-rich of the eight Great Lakes states.

Allowing unlimited diversion of Great Lakes water in plastic containers smaller than 5.7 gallon jugs is hardly a sustainability best-practice.

Additionally - - communities near Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin are poised for a run at diversions now legalized by the Compact.

Each application needs to be carefully examined: one step in the wrong direction is the preliminary, diversion-heavy recommendation by the authors of a three-year study commissioned by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

I posted information about this on my blog several days ago: the formal rollout of the documents, not yet online, took place at SEWRPC this morning.

The study's consultants and SEWRPC staff, adhering to good-ol' supply-and-demand parameters, are suggesting multiple diversions across the region - - and that shows too little regard for the Compact's return-flow requirements and Great Lakes' quantity and quality.

The preliminary recommendation suggests that a diversion to Waukesha would meet the Compact's return flow mandate if 85% of the diverted water volume were returned.

Oh, really?

And that some Lake Michigan water can be legally discharged as effluent into the Fox River - - away from Lake Michigan and towards the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Really, really?

The preliminary recommendation - - subject to change but difficult to accomplish in SEWRPC's tightly-controlled and walled-off world - - suggests that pouring most of Waukesha's return flow into Underwood Creek might be an acceptable return-flow solution - - certainly cheaper than a piped connection to the MMSD system - - but what about the water level and quality in the Creek, and on its banks, and in overflows, should flooding occur?

These are real questions.

And pressure also needs to be applied during public consideration of the SEWRPC recommendations to the impact of water planning and potential diversions on regional housing, transportation, development and economic justice considerations.

Early on, the committee chose not to broaden its study, focusing instead on supply and demand, and on alternatives' costs - - real factors, to be sure, but only part of a truly comprehensive approach.

That is the basis of one of the recent complaints filed against SEWRPC by the ACLU of Wisconsin.

It's time to put the quality of the overall Great Lakes watershed, and the many sprawl and social considerations associated with water transfers, on a par with diversion cost-benefit analyses and water supply formulas - - and there is no better place to start than in southeastern Wisconsin.

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