Once considered a major threat, shipping water outside the basin is rarely mentioned by Great Lakes govs
A minor headline in Urban Milwaukee recently caught my attention. "New Great Lakes diversion request," it read. A small Wisconsin village that straddles the Great Lakes basin divide wants water. It's eligible to apply and barring something unforeseen, it's likely to succeed.
I was ready to click out but paused to reflect on how diversions were seen not many years ago.
In 2008 when President George W. Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law, it capped a years long, heavy-lift effort by the region's intelligentsia- governors, advocates and business interests- to prevent Great Lakes water from being shipped outside the region. It was a landmark event given that the era had been dubbed the century of water. Meaning, demand would increase and availability would decrease so conserve and protect what you've got.
Shortly after, a pitched battle took place as Waukesha, Wis., through one of a couple of loopholes inserted in the compact to make it passable, applied for a diversion and ultimately succeeded in securing it. But only after a lengthy fight brought on by conservation groups who helped make the Compact law. A less high-profile skirmish took place a few years later when tech manufacturer Foxconn wanted to set up shop in Wisconsin and needed water. But advocates were tired of fighting and after a few mild protests, the diversion was approved.
But the agreement signed by President Bush was never seen as the ultimate agreement, it was the foundation. Those loopholes need to be closed and the Foxconn diversion exposed other weaknesses. But Great Lakes governors are the keepers of the agreement and the wave of Republican governors who took office in 2010 led by Snyder in Michigan and Walker in Wisconsin were in no mood to tinker. They were hyper-focused on the economy which was still in the early stages of recovery from the great recession.
But time passes, elections happen and a new wave of governors took office in 2019 including Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. The same Gretchen Whitmer who is now a political favorite of President Joe Biden, a regular on national news shows and a beer-swilling character in Saturday Night Live segments. And, she dodged a kidnap attempt by extreme militia-types in Michigan who now face federal charges.
But when you are the governor of Michigan you're expected to lead on Great Lakes issues, no exceptions. As a candidate Whitmer embraced the role articulating one of the most comprehensive Great Lakes platforms I've seen.
In it, Whitmer said the Great Lakes are "under threat from... excessive water withdrawals" which should force us to think how the resource is managed. And this, "Michigan is the Great Lakes State and should be leading the world in every freshwater policy imaginable."
Worth repeating, "... every freshwater policy imaginable."
Ok, campaign pledges have a short shelf life after the election, I get it. But Whitmer doubled-down on leading on the Great Lakes six months after taking office at a meeting in Milwaukee with her peers. "Absolutely, Michigan has to lead on Great Lakes issues," she told me in an interview. At a press event that included advocates and interested citizens she said "the Great Lakes are at the core of who Michigan is." She had set the Great Lakes bar high.
For Whitmer, reality has taken hold of her Great Lakes campaign pledges. Her agency in charge of water withdrawals for bottled water recently upheld an increase for Nestle that Whitmer had said needed to be curtailed. She's embroiled in a legal battle with Enbridge over shutting down the Line 5 oil pipeline after she said a legal fight over Line 5 would be the "worst case scenario."
But on tightening the Great Lakes Compact to prevent diversions and get rid of the loopholes, not a peep that I can see. And that's in spite of an advocacy group generally sympathetic to her policies specifically requesting that she work to correct the Compact's flaws.
With all that Gov. Whitmer and her Great Lakes colleagues are dealing with in the COVID-19, politically polarized era, it's understandable that a Compact update is not a top priority.
But if not Whitmer to lead the initiative, who and when? One day another request for Great Lakes water will come and it won't be from a sleepy Wisconsin village.
Twitter @garyglx5 Any opinions expressed are solely mine.
Chicago-based environmental journalist