Great Lakes mayors and Anishinabek Nation push for stronger water legislation

COLLINGWOOD—At a press conference last week, mayoral representatives from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Glen Hare and Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier denounced the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Water Resources Council (Compact Council) and Regional Body’s proposed procedures for reviewing water diversion requests.

“The mayors want to make clear our disappointment with the new proposed procedures that leave our waters vulnerable. We call on members of the Compact Council and Regional Body to defer adoption of the proposed changes, so they can be revisited by the newly elected governors and premiers,” stated Sheboygan, Wisconsin Mayor Mike Vandersteen in a press release.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative is a group of 131 mayors in Canada and the US that advocate for protecting and restoring the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. The Compact Council consists of the eight states on the US side of the Great Lakes (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Its counterpart, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Water Regional Body, also includes the premiers of Ontario and Quebec in addition to the eight states.

The Regional Body was formed on December 13, 2005, when the involved parties signed the Great Lakes—St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. The Compact Council started on December 8, 2008, when the US states and US federal government enacted the compact into state and federal law.

The Regional Body’s agreement outlines the policies that Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec have to follow to manage and protect the Great Lakes Basin, while also enabling each of the above jurisdictions to enact legislation to protect its water resources. In general, applications to divert water from the Great Lakes Basin to anywhere outside the watershed are forbidden. Cities in special circumstances can apply for exemptions to the policy if they are located on the border of the watershed and comply with specific terms.

A little more than a year ago, the mayors’ group joined the Anishinabek Nation in discussions about how to improve the procedures of the Compact Council. In a joint press release between the mayors and the Anishinabek Nation, the groups slammed the Compact Council for “ignoring” their concerns about “several critical flaws” within existing procedures for reviewing requests for water withdrawals.

Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Cities Initiative President and CEO John Dickert said that with the turnover in governance in Ontario and Quebec, as well as six of the eight US governors being changed following the midterm elections, the compact council should take more time for the new officials to better understand the issue and vote appropriately.

“The best thing to do now is to defer the whole process, sit down with them first and figure out the direction they want to go in. We want them to see whether the proposals by the council are good. Our goal from day one has been to make the Compact more strict with its policies,” said Mr. Dickert.

Peter Johnson, the deputy director of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, did not have time for an interview before deadline Monday. He sent along a statement that mentions discussions have been reviewed and negotiated since September of last year.

“Since then, there have been two formal opportunities for public input, special meetings and other opportunities for input specifically from Tribes, First Nations, Métis, and the Regional Body’s and Compact Council’s Advisory Committee which includes the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.  Of course, informal dialogue also occurred throughout this period of more than a year.  Numerous changes were made to the draft procedures as a result of comments and other feedback,” he wrote.

Mr. Johnson stressed that a comprehensive strategy on handling future diversion requests is required now, and that passing updated procedures at this week’s meeting does not mean further discussions will not take place.

“Indeed, Regional Body and Compact Council members have indicated that they plan to continue updating the procedures even if updates are adopted as expected on Thursday,” wrote Mr. Johnson.

The Anishinabek Nation and mayors raised two principal problems with the proposed procedures, which are scheduled for a vote at the upcoming Compact Council meeting in Chicago on December 6. They stated that the new procedures should enable more stakeholder and public participation and information sharing during the review process, something they claimed was not included in the proposed procedures. Further, they stated that the new procedures do not correct “many of the weaknesses” in the Compact Council’s ability to fully consider and keep track of water diversion requests. They stated that the Compact Council has an important role in monitoring and enforcing compliance with the approved requests but that its role is not explicitly acknowledged in the proposed procedures.

According to the Anishinabek Nation and the mayors, the Compact Council rejected two provisions designed to increase public involvement: Require every state and province to hold a public meeting or hearing in its jurisdiction about all diversion proposals; and, if a final version of an agreement differs greatly from the version on which the public had commented, the Compact Council should hold another public comment period.

The mayors and Anishinabek Nation cited the absence of post-enforcement monitoring in the procedures as something which will hinder its ability to ensure diversion requests are in compliance with the agreed terms. They then stated that applicants for diversions do not have to provide a monthly usage estimate, something that used to be a requirement. They stated the Environmental Protection Act in the US requires applicants to disclose how much water they propose to divert.

“Should the new rules be adopted as proposed, it would be a lost opportunity to increase protection for an important strategic resource and public engagement,” the release stated.

The mayors’ involvement in these policies stems from an August 2017 legal decision regarding the Wisconsin city of Waukesha’s application to switch its water supply to Lake Michigan, amounting to an average of 8.2 million gallons of water a day.

Waukesha is right on the border between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River drainage basins. The compact prohibits Great Lakes water from being pumped to regions outside the Great Lakes basin, but this city’s location on the border between two watersheds meant they could apply for a diversion request.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative said the approval did not meet the requirements of the compact and could set precedent for future cases. Rather than fighting the battle in court, in 2017 the mayors and the Compact Council agreed to both participate in a thorough review of the procedures for considering water diversion applications.

Technology company Foxxconn was the benefactor of another diversion application in Wisconsin earlier this year.

“Our main concern is that the Great Lakes only recharge at one percent per year. You can see why we’re so nervous that if people start withdrawing it could have a disastrous impact,” said Mr. Dickert.

Speaking at the press conference in Collingwood, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare said the responsibility to protect water goes far beyond the people involved in these discussions.

“We have to leave something good for our kids,” said Grand Council Chief Hare. “As we stand here, nobody deserves any less and we are no higher in authority as our fellow human beings. We are all the same.”