New Report: States’ Actions on the Great Lakes Compact Are Good, Bad and Ugly

"This report is a wake-up call to the states to step it up"

07-12-2011 // Jordan Lubetkin
Lake Superior

Halfway through efforts to implement the Great Lakes Compact, a new report by the National Wildlife Federation provides an honest critique of the states' progress:  the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This report is a wake-up call to the states to step it up,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “The future of the Compact remains bright, but our Great Lakes need a renewed commitment by the states and the region to address the bad—and prevent the ugly.”

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact ("Compact") is at a critical juncture. The Compact, a binding agreement among the Great Lakes states to protect the water resources of the Great Lakes Basin from diversions and excessive withdrawals, became law two and a half years ago. Together with a similar agreement between the states and the Great Lakes Canadian provinces, the Compact set minimum requirements for water use across the Basin.  Each state agreed to implement the Compact by meeting a series of deadlines over five years, subject to regional oversight. Today, implementation of the Compact is at the halfway point.  Two deadlines have already passed, and the final deadline is December 8, 2013.

Halfway to the five-year mark, implementation of the Great Lakes Compact is progressing at a snail’s pace,” said Sara Gosman, water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation’s Regional Center, and author of the report. “While some states have taken their obligations under the Compact seriously, and indeed chosen innovative approaches, many have opted for the lowest common denominator.  All have failed to meet one or more of the deadlines.  The Compact Council has not stepped up and held the states accountable.  The Council is operating on a shoestring budget from a foundation grant and cannot even muster the resources to bring the state representatives together for a formal meeting more than once a year.”

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Implementation of the Great Lakes Compactreviews the current status of state and regional implementation of the Compact in three critical areas:  diversions out of the Basin; water conservation and efficiency; and water withdrawal permitting.  For each area, the report gives examples of the good, the bad…and the downright ugly.  A summary of these examples follows:


The Good…   So far, Wisconsin's review of the controversial proposal by the city of Waukesha to divert water from Lake Michigan has been exemplary in its thoroughness and responsiveness to public concern.

The Bad…     The region's guidelines for review of exceptions to the diversion ban are lacking, both because there was no thorough public review of the guidelines before they were adopted, and because the process is not binding on the states.

The Ugly…    Illinois' decision to divert water to Lake County through the Chicago diversion is not consistent with the standard applied to communities just outside of the Basin in other states.

Water Conservation and Efficiency

The Good…    Ohio made a promising start when an advisory board proposed a program that, while voluntary in nature, has several innovative ideas. 

The Bad…      When given the choice between the bare minimum required by the Compact and going above and beyond to protect water resources, many of the states have chosen the path of least resistance. 

The Ugly…     It appears that all of the states have failed to meet at least one of the conservation and efficiency requirements in the Compact by the legally binding deadline of December 8, 2010.

Water Withdrawal Program

The Good…    Michigan's groundbreaking online screening test for withdrawals, which has won three national awards, is a novel means of predicting resource impacts and providing users with a quick determination. 

The Bad…      Michigan has failed to apply its permitting standard to proposed large withdrawals in a way that is consistent with its obligations under the Compact. 

The Ugly…     Under legislation recently passed in Ohio, the state’s permitting program will have the dubious distinction of not only exempting more withdrawals from regulation than any other state, but also flouting several requirements in the Compact.                                                 

“It is time for the states to renew their commitments under the Compact to each other, to the public, and to the long-term health of the Great Lakes Basin. And it is time for the Council to demand the resources necessary to oversee the states and to publicly set the states right when they falter,” said Gosman. “There is no doubt that these actions require more effort than accepting the lowest common denominator. But without these steps, the Compact will be yet another promising framework that is never truly implemented.”

Highlighting a case of the ugly, the Ohio General Assembly recently passed legislation that sinks to a new low in the annals of Compact implementation.  This unbalanced bill is drastically at odds with the Great Lakes Compact and threatens water flows and concentrated pollutants, placing recreation, tourism, and wildlife at risk.

As the Lake Erie state with the most to lose, Ohio has the distinction of having the weakest permitting program of all Great Lakes states, while clearly violating the Compact,” said Kristy Meyer, agricultural and clean water director with Ohio Environmental Council“Lake Erie could see increased harmful algal blooms, reduction in critical habitat for sport fish, such as walleye, perch and steelhead; and a loss of recreational opportunities.”

Together, the five Great Lakes make up 84% of all fresh surface water in North America and 21% of fresh surface water in the world. Yet less than 1% of the water in the Great Lakes Basin is renewable through precipitation, surface water runoff, and groundwater recharge.  Even if water uses remain within that 1%, local shortages of surface water or groundwater can dramatically affect users and degrade the environment.

Great Lakes water resources could be even more vulnerable in the future.  In a recent review of climate change models, the majority of the models predict decreases in the levels of the Great Lakes over time.  The decreases could be very severe; some models show drops of more than 8 feet in Lakes Michigan and Huron by the end of the century if carbon dioxide emissions are high.  Groundwater may also be affected.  Aquifer levels and groundwater recharge rates are expected to drop, particularly in shallow aquifers.

“The Great Lakes are a vast, but surprisingly fragile, natural resource,” said Smith. “Implementing the Compact is essential to the health of the Great Lakes, to the interconnected waters of the Great Lakes Basin, and to the people, economy, and wildlife that depend on them.”

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