Wednesday, March 5, 2008

News Analysis: Momentum of The Compact is tested

Crunch time has come in the Wisconsin Legislature. Water lobbyists and interest groups are jumping on the bandwagon to try and discredit the Great Lakes Compact.

The Compact took a step back when two Wisconsin Representatives Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem and Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, declared that The Compact was unfair to communities bordering the Great Lakes watershed.

The current Compact versions that the eight Great Lakes states have been passing do not allow for communities outside the Great Lakes watershed to withdraw Great Lakes water unless there is a unanimous vote of all eight Great Lakes Governors.

Also key in the current Wisconsin Compact version is the expansion of the public trust doctrine to the groundwater, which would allow for increased protection and regulation of private wells from the state. Huebsch and Gunderson are also against the added extensions of groundwater being in the public trust. They want less regulation for private wells.

The original Compact version was passed by the Wisconsin Senate and sent to the Republican controlled state Assembly where Huebsch is the Assembly speaker and Gunderson is the chairman of the Assembly natural resources committee.
As a result, the bill probably won't make it out of committee by the end of next week which is the end of Wisconsin's legislative session.

This reconsideration of The Compact has gotten Ohio Senator Tim Grendell more visibility to advocate for protection for private property rights. Grendell also does not like that the votes for water withdrawals have to be unanimous.

While these are valid concerns, it threatens the progress that has been made, and could send the process back to the beginning. The Compact has been enacted into law in only three of the eight states including Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana.

The dangers of dragging this situation out include the 2009 U.S. Census that will see the loss of U.S. Representatives to thirsty southwestern states. The Compact does still have to pass the U.S. House and Senate.

The other reason everybody is in such a hurry to get The Compact passed is that the current Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) that is in place is seen as unconstitutional by legal analysts. WRDA prohibits water diversions which is unconstitutional under the commerce clause in the Constitution.

Amidst the controversy from opposing legislators, interest groups that oppose The Compact have been getting more editorial space within the region.

One of the critics, the Monroe County Farm Bureau are lobbying lawmakers to oppose the Michigan House Bills. Much of their opposition is directed towards increased public involvement .

Paul Marks, president of the Monroe County Farm Bureau told The Monroe News “The public would be allowed to have a say on whether a water use is reasonable or not. The bills place all groundwater withdrawals in the ‘public trust,’ which would allow the state to place restrictions on water use beyond the environment.”

In The Monroe News article Marks worries about “Having the public comment on the permits ‘could diminish your property rights because your water use did not meet their values,’”

Marks also cites the increased costs of drilling new wells which would have a cost of over $100,000 and require many permits.

In the Green Bay Press Gazette Green Bay Press Gazette Scott Manley who is the environmental Policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (Wisconsin’s largest business association) compares the infamous Great Lakes Chicago diversion with Wisconsin’s industrial use saying that industry uses less than one percent of the water compared to water use in the entire Chicago metropolitan area.

Like Marks, Manley is making the case for less regulation and protection. Though Manley is not boldly advocating for less public involvement.

The comparison of Wisconsin’s Industrial water use with Chicago water use is a flawed argument. It is important to balance regulation with economic concerns but the water situation is becoming too hot of a topic nationally and worldwide to stall a legally valid protection against water diversions.

The Chicago diversion is a strange exception that goes back 100 years. According to Peter Annin, author of Great Lakes Water Wars, Chicago had sanitation problems of “Biblical Proportions.” At the time, the proposal to make the Chicago River flow the opposite way seemed like great idea. That way the sewage would go into the Mississippi river and the problem would be flushed far away.

When people started getting sick in St. Louis the lawsuits started. Eventully the legal battle went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 where they issued a decree that Chicago could divert water, but only 1,500 cubic feet per second. This is known as The Chicago Exception. Though the Chicago diversion is the largest Great Lakes diversion, the amount they can legally divert is finite.

The days of these kinds of large scale diversions are over and this was an unusual situation that cannot be fairly compared to industrial water use.

What is clear is that Agricultural groups oppose regulations on water use, while the lake levels continue to drop.

The levels have dropped so low that another industry is suffering: the shipping industry. The Canadian Press reported that the Great Lakes shipping industry may have to cut the shipping season short since big freighters are getting stuck in shipping canals. On Tuesday the Mississagi, a 189-metre Canadian ship got stuck for two hours in the entrance to the Grand Haven channel.

The New York Times reported that “for every inch of water that the lakes lose, the ships that ferry bulk materials across them must lighten their by 270 tons – or 540,000 pounds – or risk running aground, according to the Lake Carriers’ Association, a trade group for United States flag cargo companies.”

It will be curious to see the press that Great Lakes shipping groups get in the coming weeks. It will also be curious to see the response of regional lawmakers to these complex challenges.

by Jason Tafilowski

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