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Great Lakes compact moves ahead

July 6, 2008
The Mining Journal

LANSING (AP) - A year ago, it seemed a proposed compact designed to prevent raids on the Great Lakes might be sunk by squabbles in the states with jurisdiction over nearly one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water.

Now the deal is close to ratification on the state level, and supporters are beginning to plot strategy for the final step: winning approval from Congress and the White House.

On the surface, the task would appear easy. 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.

Leading supporters of the Great Lakes pact say they're aware of no significant opposition in Congress or from the Bush administration. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, the likely presidential nominees, have endorsed it.

But backers remain wary. After all, it was fear of water grabs from other sections of the country - or even from overseas - that inspired the eight states to negotiate their deal.

''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.

Fact Box

Compact facts

By The Associated Press

Facts about the proposed Great Lakes water compact:

Signed by region's governors in December 2005. Needs approval of all eight state legislatures, Congress and U.S. president to take effect.

Ratified by Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and Ohio. Has been approved by legislature and awaits governor's signature in Michigan. Has cleared House and awaits Senate vote in Pennsylvania.

Would require each state to adopt water inventories and conservation plans, and to regulate large-scale withdrawals.

Prohibits new or increased diversions of water to users outside the Great Lakes basin with limited exceptions, including to communities that straddle the basin boundary. Diversions to straddling counties could be vetoed by any Great Lakes state.

Similarly worded agreement has been ratified by Ontario, Quebec.

The governors were jolted into action a decade ago when a Canadian firm 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 haggling, the governors signed the compact in December 2005. They couldn't make a binding agreement with Ontario and Quebec, but both provinces adopted laws nearly identical to the compact.

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.

Also, the states would be required to adopt conservation plans and regulate their use of water - not just from the Great Lakes, but also inland waterways.

Approval is needed from the region's eight state legislatures. Minnesota quickly said yes, followed by Illinois, Indiana and New York.

But resistance surfaced in Ohio, where opponents said the compact would deny landowners the right to use water on their property. Wisconsin critics feared it would strangle growth in suburban Milwaukee cities 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. Gov. Jim Doyle called a special legislative session to approve a compromise in Wisconsin. Supporters in Ohio agreed on a statewide referendum on the property-rights issue. Michigan's legislature last week passed a water-use package including the compact.

Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio signed the bill on Friday and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan has pledged to sign her state's bill. When she does, the focus will turn to Pennsylvania, where the compact cleared the House in January and is pending in the Senate.

A key supporter, state Sen. Jane Earll of Erie, said she knew of no opposition. But Senate lawyers want to review the measure, which may leave no time for a vote before the legislature begins its summer recess. If that happens, ''I'm completely confident we'll enact it in the fall,'' Earll said.

Meanwhile, backers have been conducting briefings for congressional staffers from the Great Lakes states in hopes of gaining quick approval.

But crucial questions remain unanswered, such as 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. Also unclear is when the pact would be introduced and whether it can get through Congress before the next president takes office.

''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.''

While no criticisms have arisen from Sun Belt states suffering from water shortages, at least one Great Lakes lawmaker is not happy with the compact.

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, says the ban on diversions has a significant loophole: It allows bottled water to be shipped from the region, a hotly debated issue in his state.

''The commercialization of the water is the big issue for him,'' spokesman Nick Choate said. Stupak has not decided whether to oppose the compact, he said.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said he'd heard occasional jokes from colleagues outside the region about taking Great Lakes water but doubted any would challenge the compact.

''I think they all realize they're going to have to solve their own water problems,'' Ehlers said. ''But it's definitely becoming a hotter issue.''

 
 

 

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