Can the cheese state lead on water?
Michigan will always be the center of attention when it comes to Great Lakes issues. Geography demands it.
But other states garner focus too.
Ohio and Lake Erie have been in the spotlight for the last few years as the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes is experiencing another of its recurring near-death cycles. Intense algae blooms are the current threat. Lake Erie’s problems will persist and it should receive all possible resources.
But now the spotlight shifts to Wisconsin. Here’s why:
- The city of Waukesha is located just outside the Great Lakes basin and it wants to tap Lake Michigan for millions of gallons of water daily. This is the first test of the landmark Great Lakes Compact that requires the request to gain the approval of the other Great Lakes states. The region needs to get Waukesha’s application right because it’s likely to be precedent setting. A critical and tough review means that the compact may yet have teeth.
- Greater Milwaukee is positioning itself as a world water hub for technology, research and economic growth. The effort is led by The Water Council, a business community initiative supported by academic institutions. “Milwaukee itself exemplifies the hope that water may not only support growth, but catalyze it” the Economist has reported. But is a business driven model for resource management in the region’s best interests? Especially when the resource is water?
- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is a key Great Lakes player. He chairs the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a group of U.S. and Canadian mayors who “are leading a movement that will sustain our freshwater resources long into the future,” according to the group’s website. Will Barrett impact Great Lakes policy beyond his influence on the region’s mayors?
- The cheese state has more than 200 miles of Lake Michigan shore. That’s the Lake Michigan that is experiencing near record low water levels.
Toss in an aggressive mining proposal that could threaten Lake Superior and that’s a lot on Wisconsin’s Great Lakes plate.
Needed: True leaders
I’m always looking for leaders when it comes to Great Lakes issues – true leaders, not the issue a press release and disappear types.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says he wants to lead the governors and he has that opportunity. But he’s a businessman at heart and I’m not sure leading on conservation is in his DNA.
Could Wisconsin lead on Great Lakes issues?
The old Wisconsin could — the Wisconsin of Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. But those days are in Wisconsin’s rear-view mirror. Gov. Scott Walker has a primarily economic agenda and he has been described by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters as “arguably the most anti-conservation governor in Wisconsin history.”
A similarly minded state legislature is no help.
Where does that leave Wisconsin and its relationship to the Great Lakes in 2013?
The state has an opportunity to lead by example but it will require a willingness to think critically and for the long term, not until the next election. Here’s how:
- Wisconsin can enhance the chances of Waukesha getting Lake Michigan water by telling it to drop its plan for an increased service area. That’s only in the request to promote economic growth and is probably a deal killer anyway.
- The Water Council can better serve the region by scaling back on self-promoting press releases and similar social media messages. Water isn’t a marketing tool to be used for economic growth. It’s a necessary-for-life natural resource held in trust for the public by the state. A wise Water Council would look at Lake Michigan’s low levels and start talking about conservation not consumption. That’s the key to business prosperity.
- Mayor Barrett can use the bully pulpit of his mayoral leadership position to demonstrate that urban areas can be good water stewards. If he does, not only do Milwaukee’s residents and businesses benefit, so does the state of Wisconsin.
I’m not an optimist by nature so I doubt that my recommendations will gain traction, except perhaps Barrett leading by example.
The broad Great Lakes community — conservation groups, government agencies and regional commissions —are scheduled to meet in Milwaukee this fall for their annual conference. It will be a good time to take stock.
Which Wisconsin will be on display?
The one that is focused on the economy at all costs and sees water as one more option in the marketing toolbox?
Or a Wisconsin that recognizes that its water abundance is a one-time gift to be used wisely and conserved for generations to come?
I’m hoping for the latter but the evidence to date isn’t encouraging.