The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  • Marc Smith
  • Jul 12, 2011

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.

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 the entire ecosystem. The Great Lakes are a vast, but surprisingly fragile, natural resource. 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.

This report reviews the 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

Diversions out of the Basin

  • 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 Permitting

  • 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.

The good examples of implementation in this report show that the promise of the Compact remains bright. But the Compact needs renewed commitment by the states and the region to address the bad—and stop the ugly.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

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 the entire ecosystem.


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