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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Implementation of the Great Lakes Compact – Guest Post by Sara Gosman

The following guest post is by Sara Gosman, a water resource attorney with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, and the leading regional expert on state implementation of the Great Lakes Compact. Sara is also a lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School, teaching a variety of environmental law courses (see her faculty bio for more details).

Two weeks ago, Ohio became the last state to take action to implement the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. The bill passed by the General Assembly has the dubious distinction of not only creating the weakest permitting program for water withdrawals in the region, but also violating several of the minimum standards in the Great Lakes Compact. Ohio's move has been widely condemned (see, for example, this Detroit Free Press editorial), and was opposed by former Republican Governors George Voinovich and Bob Taft.  Governor Kasich has until July 18th to veto the bill or it becomes law. ***Update: Gov. Kasich has now vetoed the bill*** A month ago, New York's Legislature passed a bill that is the polar opposite of Ohio's: it creates a statewide water management program notable for its protective standard, low permitting threshold of 100,000 gallons per day, and regulation of both existing and proposed water withdrawals. The bill is expected to be signed by Governor Cuomo.

Judging from these events, it is a good time to take stock of the Great Lakes Compact. 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. Implementation of the Compact is now at the halfway point. Two deadlines have already passed, and the final deadline is December 8, 2013.

Today the National Wildlife Federation is releasing a report I authored that examines how the states and region are implementing the Great Lakes Compact. In the report, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Implementation of the Great Lakes Compact, I focus on three critical areas of the Compact: diversions out of the Great Lakes Basin; conservation and efficiency; and water withdrawal permitting. For each area, I give examples of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. You might not be surprised to learn that Ohio is the "ugly" example of a water withdrawal permitting program. But other states have also failed to live up to the Compact's promise.  As I explain in the report:

Where are the Great Lakes states? That isn’t a rhetorical question. 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 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council (“Council”)—the regional oversight body created by the Compact—has not stepped up and held the states to account.  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 report closes by recommending that the states and region take specific actions to shore up the good, address the bad, and stop the ugly. The bottom line? There is much to cheer, but also much yet to do: 

Halfway to the five-year mark, 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. 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.