Gary Wilson

Who’s Protecting the Great Lakes?

Leaders like Jim Doyle did, but today's governors are less concerned about issues like algae and diverting water to Waukesha.

By , Great Lakes Echo - Jul 10th, 2015 12:05 pm
Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

It’s said in sports that when you get close to a championship, you better win it. You don’t know when or even if you’ll get the opportunity again.

Great Lakes governors had a recent opportunity to score a big win for drinking water quality and they whiffed. They chose the path to a consolation prize – or no prize at all.

At the recent Great Lakes governor’s “Leadership Summit” in Quebec, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Ohio Gov. John Kasich agreed to commit to a 40 percent reduction in phosphorous that runs off to Lake Erie. Phosphorous runoff, primarily from farms, feeds the toxic algae that caused Toledo to be without drinking water for three days last August.

The two governors were joined by Ontario Premier Katherine Wynne.

Leaderless summit

The move sounds impressive until you look past the glowing press releases that followed.

First, the governors are late to the party. Their call for a 40 percent reduction in phosphorous has been floated by many groups for at least a couple of years.

And speaking of being late to the party, Kasich didn’t even attend the party – that is, the “Leadership Summit” where the announcement was made. And Ohio has more at stake than any state when it comes to Lake Erie. Look at a map of the Great Lakes watershed. Think Toledo water crisis.

Kasich was traveling to drum up support for a potential presidential run. He delegated Great Lakes matters to the Lieutenant Governor.

In fact the “Leadership Summit” was bereft of well, leaders.

Only two of the eight Great Lakes state governors attended. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker joined Michigan’s Snyder. In addition to Ohio, other states also sent lieutenant governors or “senior representatives” except Illinois which didn’t attend.

Keep in mind that this leaderless summit was about a region that contains 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water. If it were a country, its economy would be the third largest in the world.

That’s no small agenda and it was held on an international stage in Canada. What better way for governors to showcase the region and to make a unified pitch to attract those blue economy businesses that are so coveted?

Late to the algae party

Showing up late is better than not attending and it’s necessary for the governors to show they’re doing something about algae.

So how will they reach that goal?

Here’s the “Implementation Plan” verbatim from the Quebec Leadership Summit agreement: “Each state and province commits to developing, in collaboration with stakeholder involvement, a plan outlining their proposed actions and timelines toward achieving the phosphorus reduction goal.”

Algae bloom on the Great Lakes.

Algae bloom on the Great Lakes.

That’s it. A year after the Toledo crisis brought international attention to the region there’s an agreement to develop a plan.

Off I go asking the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Ohio EPA for details.

“Michigan is focused on continuing the work it has been doing,” Brad Wurfel, the agency’s communications director responded in an email.

“We’re doing a lot already, and folks can expect more to come,” Wurfel said.

In response to my question about declaring Western Lake Erie “impaired,” which could trigger tougher regulations under the Clean Water Act, Wurfel said, “There’s no basis to declare the lake impaired right now.”

The Ohio EPA had a similar response highlighting what they’ve been doing.

Deputy Director of Communications Heidi Griesmer added that the Buckeye state is focused on working with U.S. EPA and Environment Canada on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

“It is our intent to work through that process to address the near-shore as well as open lake issues of Lake Erie” Griesmer said.

That strategy is scheduled to be finalized in 2018.

By then both Kasich and Snyder will be well into their last year in office and who knows what that strategy will be.

For all the talk about valuing the Great Lakes and blue economies, this was a shabby performance in Quebec by an absent and disinterested group of governors.

Still, as in sports when you fail there’s always next season; another chance to grab that elusive championship that will define your legacy. And so it is for Great Lakes governors.


For Great Lakes observers, Waukesha has long symbolized one thing: diverting water from the region to areas outside the basin.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently announced it was finally prepared to send Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water to the other seven Great Lakes states for approval. All seven must approve or the request is denied.

Waukesha lies just outside the Great Lakes basin but through some creative crafting of the Great Lakes Compact, it’s eligible to apply. That’s because the compact’s architects, with Waukesha in mind, said that a town in a county that straddles the natural divide is eligible to divert water under certain conditions.

Got that? I told you it was creative policy making.

Wisconsin is expected to send its Waukesha diversion request to the other states in early 2016.

That will trigger months of analysis and hearings that will lead to the request landing on each governor’s desk for a decision.

None of the governors who will make the Waukesha decision were in office in 2008 when the compact was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

They have no ownership of it, but they are responsible for executing it.

How they handle their review is critical because it will be precedent setting.

It will be one of those the whole world is watching moments to see if we – the water wealthy – can be good stewards of that 20 per cent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.

A rigorous, critical review of Waukesha’s request signals that the Great Lakes Compact has teeth to others who will undoubtedly seek to tap into the Great Lakes.

A soft, let’s all collaborate review that prioritizes process over protecting the lakes could open the door to marginal requests and weaken the Compact until it’s ineffective.

Having tiptoed around the algae and drinking water quality issue, this is the last chance for Snyder, Kasich and their six colleagues to make a big protective statement for the Great Lakes.

They need to tell an increasingly water-needy world that Great Lakes water will stay in its place.

It’s time for the current class of governors to stop thinking about their next job and reflect on the legacy left them by former governors Jim Doyle of Wisconsin and Bob Taft of Ohio who spearheaded passage of the compact.

They showed up as did their colleagues from the other states.

They set aside party politics, political aspirations and personal agendas prioritizing the region’s water interests over those of their respective states.

The current class of Great Lakes governors has yet to do that.

Getting Waukesha right is their last chance.

This story was originally published by Great Lakes Echo.

Categories: Great Lakes Echo, Op-Ed

2 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Who’s Protecting the Great Lakes?”

  1. WaukAnon says:

    Waukesha City Council actually just had a presentation by the Water Utility head at this week’s Council meeting. I believe the video is up already.

  2. Big Al says:

    If any state should vote NO, it should be Michigan – the whole state lies in the Great Lakes basin, so it would never need to ask the other states for a diversion. Plus any deterioration of the Great Lakes would hurt Michigan the most, since it touches 4 of the 5 lakes.

    Sending the water to where it is “needed” is what’s causing all the water problems out west – the Colorado River doesn’t even reach the ocean every year since so much of it is siphoned off to California, Arizona, Utah, etc. I’m sure they thought there was plenty of water for everyone when they started as well…

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