Great Lakes compact focus shifting to Congress

June 29, 2008 2:14:05 PM PDT
A year ago, it seemed a proposed interstate compact designed to prevent thirstier regions from raiding the Great Lakes might be sunk by squabbles among the eight states with jurisdiction over the vast reservoir. Now the deal to govern nearly one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water is close to ratification at 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, both have endorsed it.

But backers remain wary. After all, it was fear of water grabs by 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.

The governors were jolted into action a decade ago when 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 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.

The states also would be required to adopt conservation plans and regulate their use of water - from inland waterways as well as the Great Lakes.

The legislatures of all eight states must approve the compact. Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and New York quickly said yes.

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 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. 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.

That leaves Pennsylvania, where the compact cleared the House in January and is pending in the Senate. Even if it doesn't reach a vote before the legislature begins its summer recess, "I'm completely confident we'll enact it in the fall," said state Sen. Jane M. Earll, a key supporter.

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

However, no decision has been made yet on 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."

No criticisms have arisen from water-short Sun Belt states, but at least one Great Lakes lawmaker still 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. He has not decided whether to oppose the compact, said spokesman Nick Choate.

"The commercialization of the water is the big issue for him," Choate said.


Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.


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