In celebrating the final passage of the Great Lakes compact by the state legislatures, it’s easy to forget how difficult this process has been and how many times success seemed out of reach. I was involved in the negotiation and drafting of the Great Lakes compact for three years (2003-2005) through the Advisory Committee to the Council of Great Lakes Governors Water Management Working Group, and there were several points during that time when the process almost died. Dr. Sam Speck, the former Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors Water Management Working Group, spent considerable time and political capital moving the process forward and building consensus among the states and interest groups. At times all of us questioned whether it was worth the effort and doubted that the states would ever agree on the terms of the compact.
Even after the governors proposed and endorsed the Great Lakes compact (and signed a non-binding agreement with the Canadian provinces) in December 2005, we knew passing the compact through every state legislature would be a political obstacle course. Many pundits, commentators, and academics doubted that it could be done (I must admit that I too had my doubts at times, especially in Ohio and Wisconsin). We all underestimated the tremendous public support for protecting the Great Lakes and the pressure on political leaders to come together on this issue.
I’ve tallied the final legislative votes on the Great Lakes compact and the numbers are incredible. Most state legislatures passed the compact unanimously. Over 95% of state lawmakers voted in support the compact. (See the Council of Great Lakes Governors compact implementation website for details on state compact legislation.) Both Republicans and Democrats sponsored compact legislation in many states. This level of support is especially impressive considering that the Great Lakes compact will require – in some states and circumstances for the first time ever – regulation of water use with new water conservation and environmental protection standards. (For a detailed analysis of the Great Lakes compact and the evolution of Great Lakes water law, see my article Toward a New Horizontal Federalism: Interstate Water Management in the Great Lakes Region).
In part, the success of the Great Lakes compact is due to the regional leadership of numerous governors, legislators, and agency staffers, especially over a decade-long process that outlasted many individual political careers (Governor Elliot Spitzer of New York signed the Great Lakes compact just two weeks before he resigned from office and political life). Credit should also be given to the pragmatic and progressive leaders of the environmental groups and major water users that worked to find common ground on reforming water law in the region. The media provided detailed and continuous coverage year after year, building public knowledge and awareness of the issues. But most of all, the success is due to the citizens of the Great Lakes region that have risen to the challenge of being stewards of the world’s greatest freshwater resource. To everyone that cares about the Great Lakes and gave their support to the Great Lakes compact – thank you.