Great Lakes govs whiff on algae; can they hit a diversion home run?

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


By Gary Wilson

It’s said in sports that when you get close to a championship, you better win it.

You don’t know when or even if you’ll get the opportunity again.

Great Lakes governors — who aren’t competing, they control their own destiny — had a recent opportunity to score a big win for drinking water quality and they whiffed. They chose the path to a consolation prize — or no prize at all.

At the recent Great Lakes governor’s “Leadership Summit” in Quebec, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Ohio Gov. John Kasich agreed to commit to a 40 per cent reduction in phosphorous that runs off to Lake Erie. Phosphorous runoff, primarily from farms, feeds the toxic algae that caused Toledo to be without drinking water for three days last August.

The two governors were joined by Ontario Premier Katherine Wynne.

Leaderless summit

The move sounds impressive until you look past the glowing press releases that followed.

First, the governors are late to the party.

chicagoviewTheir call for a 40 per cent reduction in phosphorous has been floated by many groups for at least a couple of years.

And speaking of being late to the party, Gov. Kasich didn’t even attend the party — that is, the “Leadership Summit” where the announcement was made. And Ohio has more at stake than any state when it comes to Lake Erie. Look at a map. Think Toledo water crisis.

Kasich was traveling to drum up support for a potential presidential run. He delegated Great Lakes matters to the Lieutenant Governor.

In fact the “Leadership Summit” was bereft of well, leaders.

Only two of the eight Great Lakes state governors attended. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker joined Michigan’s Snyder. In addition to Ohio, other states also sent lieutenant governors or “senior representatives” except Illinois which didn’t attend.

Keep in mind that this leaderless summit was about water and the region contains 20 per cent of the Earth’s fresh surface water. If it were a country, its economy would be the third largest in the world.

That’s no small agenda and it was held on an international stage in Canada. What better way for governors to showcase the region and to make a unified pitch to attract those blue economy businesses that are so coveted.

Late to the algae party

Showing up late is better than not attending and it’s necessary for the governors to show they’re doing something about algae.

So how will they reach that goal?

Here’s the “Implementation Plan” verbatim from the Quebec Leadership Summit agreement:

“Each state and province commits to developing, in collaboration with stakeholder involvement, a plan outlining their proposed actions and timelines toward achieving the phosphorus reduction goal.”

That’s it. A year after the Toledo crisis brought international attention to the region there’s an agreement to develop a plan.

Off I go asking the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Ohio EPA for details.

“Michigan is focused on continuing the work it has been doing,” Brad Wurfel, the agency’s communications director responded in an email.

“We’re doing a lot already, and folks can expect more to come,” Wurfel said.

In response to my question about declaring Western Lake Erie “impaired,” which could trigger tougher regulations under the Clean Water Act, Wurfel said, “There’s no basis to declare the lake impaired right now.”

The Ohio EPA had a similar response highlighting what they’ve been doing.

Deputy Director of Communications Heidi Griesmer added that the Buckeye state is focused on working with U.S. EPA and Environment Canada on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

“It is our intent to work through that process to address the near-shore as well as open lake issues of Lake Erie” Griesmer said.

That strategy is scheduled to be finalized in 2018.

By then both Kasich and Snyder will be well into their last year in office and who knows what that strategy will be.

For all the talk about valuing the Great Lakes and blue economies, this was a shabby performance in Quebec by an absent and disinterested group of governors. The status quo which hasn’t worked trumped bold action to improve drinking water quality.

In sports when you fail there’s always next season; another chance to grab that elusive championship that will define your legacy.

And so it is for Great Lakes governors.


For Great Lakes observers, Waukesha has long symbolized one thing: diverting water from the region to areas outside the basin.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently announced that it was finally prepared to send Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water to the other seven Great Lakes states for approval. And all seven must approve or the request is denied.

Waukesha lies just outside the Great Lakes basin but through some creative crafting of the Great Lakes Compact, it’s eligible to apply. That’s because the compact’s architects, with Waukesha in mind, said that a town in a county that straddles the natural divide is eligible to divert water under certain conditions.

Got that? I told you it was creative policy making.

Wisconsin is expected to send its Waukesha diversion request to the other states in early 2016.

That will trigger months of analysis and hearings that will lead to the request landing on each governor’s desk for a decision.

None of the governors who will make the Waukesha decision were in office in 2008 when the compact was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

They have no ownership of it, but they are responsible for executing it.

How they handle their review is critical because it will be precedent setting.

It will be one of those the whole world is watching moments to see if we — the water wealthy — can be good stewards of that 20 per cent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.

A rigorous, critical review of Waukesha’s request signals that the Great Lakes Compact has teeth to others who will undoubtedly seek to tap into the Great Lakes.

A soft, let’s all collaborate review that prioritizes process over protecting the lakes could open the door to marginal requests and weaken the Compact until it’s ineffective.

Having tiptoed around the algae and drinking water quality issue, this is the last chance for Snyder, Kasich and their six colleagues to make a big protective statement for the Great Lakes.

They need to tell an increasingly water-needy world that Great Lakes water will stay in its place.

It’s time for the current class of governors to stop thinking about their next job and reflect on the legacy left them by former governors Jim Doyle of Wisconsin and Bob Taft of Ohio who spearheaded passage of the compact.

They showed up as did their colleagues from the other states.

They set aside party politics, political aspirations and personal agendas prioritizing the region’s water interests over those of their respective states.

The current class of Great Lakes governors has yet to do that.

Getting Waukesha right is their last chance.

4 thoughts on “Great Lakes govs whiff on algae; can they hit a diversion home run?

  1. If you had Cuomo there and he ordered an end to the use of the ice boom, things would improve dramatically and quickly. You may not believe me but until the natural conveyor system is restored, nothing will change.

  2. Under Walker, Wisconsin has gone backwards on phosphorous and manure runoff prevention by weakening cleanup timetables. Look to the growing dead zone in Green Bay as a literal and metaphorical signal of disinterest. Walker has deeply politicized his DNR, and slashed its science, inspection and regulatory action budgets, and staffing, thus weakening the agency work and reputation.

  3. JD,

    Thanks for your well-reasoned comment.

    Almost every substantive position like your’s that I read supporting Waukesha’s request fails to mention the quantity issue.

    Waukesha is requesting over 10 million gallons per day (mgd) when actual need is six mgd. Presumably to provide for the “service area” yet the Compact makes no mention of providing for a service area containing towns that don’t have a need.

    That’s one of the principal objections to the request environmental groups and others (Mke Mayor Barrett) have expressed and one that the seven governors will have to reconcile.

    Gary Wilson

  4. Yes, Waukesha’s application needs to be decided on science — not on a knee-jerk reaction against it. The DNR said Waukesha has no reasonable water supply alternative, even when it hypothetically looked at levels of water use that would be far less than what the agency said is reasonable.
    All the groundwater alternatives have significant adverse impacts on wetlands and surface waters, even at lower levels of demand.
    Approving Waukesha will show that the Compact works. To reject the science behind Waukesha is to reject the compromise that the Compact represents — a compromise that bars 99% of U.S. communities outside of the basin of even applying. The communities that can apply must show a need and must return water to the basin after use. Very, very few communities will apply under the Compact. And with return flow, there will be no impact on the lake volumes, regardless.

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