Great Lakes Water Compact Foundering

Published June 1, 2007

An agreement by the governors of eight Midwestern states to champion an interstate compact that would treat the Great Lakes as a shared resource unavailable to communities outside the Great Lakes drainage basin is struggling to remain afloat in regional state legislatures.

Won’t Be Ratified Soon

The proposed compact, agreed to by the governors of the eight Great Lakes states in 2005, is being dogged by concerns that it gives too much power to government and unfairly cuts off reasonable access to 20 percent of the world’s surface supply of fresh water.

As a result, the compact has been ratified in just one state–Minnesota–while legislation to ratify it continues to stagnate in the legislatures of most of the other Great Lakes states.

The Illinois House endorsed the compact in late March, and at press time the state Senate was expected to do likewise in the very near future. The compact is languishing in the Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin state legislatures.

To take effect, the compact must win the approval of all eight states plus Congress. Analysts see little chance of it being ratified any time soon.

Runaway Government Power

Opposition to the compact was initially expected to be strongest in distant states, particularly those west of the Mississippi River, that would be concerned about losing future access to Great Lakes water. However, the most vocal opposition has mounted in the Great Lakes states themselves.

Ohio state Sen. Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland) strongly opposes language declaring Great Lakes waters are held in public trust. With the proposed compact claiming authority over not just the lakes themselves but also the Great Lakes watershed, Grendell fears the compact will encroach upon the preexisting private property rights of Ohioans who own farm ponds, wetlands, and private water wells.

“The government is being encouraged to take people’s property without paying for it. That is flat-out un-American,” Grendell told the Associated Press for a March 31 story.

Grendell also questioned the wisdom of Ohio giving up its sovereignty over the substantial amount of Lake Erie water within its boundaries.

Local Communities Abandoned

Another contentious issue is the proposed compact’s refusal to make Great Lakes water available to communities outside the watershed, even if those communities are very near to the Great Lakes themselves.

For example, the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha sits just 15 miles west of Lake Michigan but is outside the Great Lakes watershed because of a natural divide of the land. Local officials fear the growing community will face severe water shortages if it is cut off from nearby Lake Michigan.

Waukesha’s complaints have fallen on deaf ears when presented to activist groups such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes, however. Cameron Davis, president of the alliance, believes no water should leave the Great Lakes basin. He says the side effect of choking off suburban sprawl is a benefit rather than a detriment to the compact.

Who Controls the Water?

“The Great Lakes are a resource for us to use and protect, not a commodity to sell to the highest bidder,” Davis said in March testimony to the Executive Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.

“They are not a resource to be squandered by any one industry, person, or community at the expense of all of us,” Davis continued. “We all have a responsibility to protect the lakes, not for a single interest, but for our families and future generations.”

“The attempt of the Great Lakes States to commandeer what has always been considered a national resource treasure is outrageous,” countered Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, who received the nation’s first Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology.

“All communities within the Great Lakes States should be able to share in the wonderful wealth of this resource, and I strongly oppose the strong-arm tactics being exhibited today by power brokers in the Great Lakes States,” Lehr said.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney in Rochester, New York.