June 30, 2008

Great Lakes Protection Supporters Turn To Congress For Approval

The Great Lakes could receive protection from a new proposal to prevent other regions from tapping into its supply of fresh surface water.

The new deal to govern nearly one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water is close to ratification at the state level with ongoing plans to go before Congress and then the White House.

Congress has endorsed more than 200 interstate compacts over the years, including 41 dealing specifically with water management. They regulate use of some of the nation's primary water sources, such as the Colorado and Delaware rivers.

The new compact faces no real opposition from members of Congress or those of the Bush administration, supporters say. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have also both endorsed it.

Still, supporters of the deal are being cautious.

"There's a sense of urgency because this is an increasingly valuable natural resource at a time when significant growth is taking place in water-short areas," said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Backers were prompted to create an agreement after a Canadian company obtained a permit from Ontario to ship tankers of Lake Superior water to Asia. The company dropped its plan in the face of withering criticism. But legal experts said the lakes needed stronger protection.

After years of arguments between eight states with jurisdiction over the reservoir, governors endorsed the compact in December 2005. It would prohibit, with rare exceptions, piping or shipping Great Lakes water outside the system's vast drainage basin, which reaches from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to beyond the western edge of Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. The basin measures about 900 miles east to west and 700 miles north to south.

The legislature requires all eight states to approve the contract. Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and New York have all agreed, but some opponents in Ohio said the compact would deny landowners the right to use water on their property. Wisconsin critics feared it would strangle growth in Milwaukee suburbs straddling or just outside the basin boundary. In Michigan, it got tangled in debate over accompanying bills to regulate in-state water withdrawals.

"It was declared dead several times before the governors came out with their recommendation," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center. "It's been declared dead every couple of months since then. But it keeps coming back, like a cat with nine lives."

The pact regained momentum this spring when Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle called a special legislative session to approve a compromise. Ohio lawmakers accepted a compromise and Gov. Ted Strickland signed the ratification Friday. Michigan's legislature passed a water-use package including the compact last week and Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised to sign it.

"I'm completely confident we'll enact it in the fall," said state Sen. Jane M. Earll, a key supporter.

Backers are still unsure who will be the primary House and Senate sponsors, which committees will consider the compact and whether it will be structured as a bill, a resolution or an amendment to other legislation.

"This has moved so much quicker than any of us thought," said Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Great Lakes Alliance. "We're putting finishing touches on some of these strategic points but don't have our final thoughts quite ready yet."


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Council of Great Lakes Governors