July 24, 2008

Supporters Expect Congress to Pass Great Lakes Treaty


Washington -- The Great Lakes Compact, a politically painstaking effort to protect lake water from being diverted to distant regions, will be ratified by Congress this year or next, its supporters predicted Wednesday.

The compact would provide "unprecedented protections" against water diversions, said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who joined federal lawmakers of both parties at a news conference Wednesday to mark the measure's introduction.

The lawmakers said they knew of no significant opposition on Capitol Hill to the measure.

Interstate compacts -- this one involves Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York -- must be approved by Congress.

Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota predicted House passage this year. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said it could possibly take longer in the Senate, where the legislative process is more unpredictable. Because of the August recess, the national conventions and an election-year target adjournment of late September, there may be only four or five weeks of legislating left this year.

"It's not going to be the worst thing in the world if that doesn't happen until next year, but it sure would be great if it happened right now, and we could get going," Doyle said Wednesday, after meetings with congressional leaders and committee chairs.

Levin said the main effect of the compact is that it "strengthens our legal position to protect against diversion."

The compact, years in the making, has been approved by the legislatures of all eight Great Lakes states. Its supporters said that along with bipartisan backing in Congress, they enjoy the support of both presumptive presidential nominees.

Passage is "something you don't have to worry about," said Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, who was joined at the news conference by eight lawmakers from the region, including Wisconsin Republican Rep. Tom Petri of Fond du Lac.

"We really haven't heard any opposition to this," said Doyle, who is chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors. "We've certainly had our ears open."

Republican Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan said Wednesday that if there is any opposition from lawmakers in other parts of the country, the debate over the Great Lakes bill will be a chance to "flush it out."

Doyle was in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday to talk to lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, about the compact and to meet with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about issues related to the summer flooding in Wisconsin.

Doyle said he was asking for passage of the compact this year, but "it's a difficult thing to do given the calendar."

The Great Lakes bill will go through the judiciary panels in both houses. Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who is chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee, will preside over a hearing of the full committee on the measure on Wednesday.

"As I travel around Wisconsin holding town hall meetings, I regularly hear from people concerned with the health of the Great Lakes," Feingold said in a statement.

Other Wisconsin lawmakers are on board. Six of the state's eight House members have districts that touch Lake Michigan or Lake Superior.

One Ohio lawmaker, Republican Steve LaTourette, said Wednesday that it was important to pass the compact in the next few years because the Great Lakes states as a group will be losing congressional clout after the next census because of an expected loss of several House seats. Wisconsin is not expected to lose a seat after 2010.

The compact bans new or increased water diversions from the lakes, with narrowly restricted exceptions. It also establishes scientific standards for guiding water supply decisions within the Great Lakes basin.

The compact is meant to defend the lakes against efforts by other regions or even countries to tap into what is one of the world's largest sources of freshwater at a time when climate change has stoked fears of declining water levels in the lakes.

There is concern that diminishing water supplies elsewhere will make the lakes a more inviting target for those who covet its water supply.

Lakes as economic asset

The Great Lakes officials promoting the compact see it not only as a way to preserve the lake for drinking and recreation but as a way to preserve what they believe will be an increasingly valuable economic asset that gives the region a competitive advantage over other areas.

"Those of you who are concerned about the current gas and oil crisis should be reminded the same thing is likely to happen with water," said Republican Rep. Vern Ehlers of Michigan.


For more about the Great Lakes Compact, visit www.jsonline.com.

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