Protecting Water—The Essence of Life
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Water is critically important to Michigan.
“If you ask most people in Michigan about the importance of water, they would say, ‘it’s the essence of our being’ or ‘it’s the essence of our living’ or ‘it’s the essence of our life,'” said Patty Birkholz, a former state senator and current director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes.
Just look at the state—it touches four of the five Great Lakes and is almost completely surrounded by water. Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism—the state’s three largest industries—depend on the Great Lakes.
“Water is the very backbone of our economic engine of tourism and natural resources,” Birkholz said. “Water is very important for our tourism economy, and that water has to not only be abundant, there and accessible, but it also has to be clean enough to drink and it has to be clean enough to swim in.”
While Michigan has the largest area of Great Lakes exposure, the lakes’ importance can be felt in the other Great Lakes states—Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Birkholz said.
Governors in those states in 2001 formed a compact that recognized the importance of the Great Lakes to the region and the need to protect the lakes for future generations, said David Naftzger, executive director of the Great Lakes Compact. The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. The multi-year effort goal of providing more protection for the Great Lakes culminated in December 2008 with the final approval of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, known as the Great Lakes Compact.
The compact is a Midwest regional winner of The Council of State Governments’ 2012 Innovations Award.
“The Great Lakes includes parts of eight states and two (Canadian) provinces and there were many competing interests, different needs, different histories, different programs in place,” Naftzger said. “A truly unique solution was needed that would bring everyone together and get consensus.”
Educating legislators, the public and others about the need for a compact and how it would operate proved to be a challenge, he said. A compact is, in essence, a contract among states.
Naftzger said when people learned about specifics—such as water conservation and efficiency programs, protections against long distance large-scale diversions and a framework to ensure sustainable use—they began to understand the purpose of the compact and why it was the right tool for the job.
About 95 percent of the more than 1,300 state legislators and nearly 500 members of Congress who voted on the compact supported it.
“Clearly the overall outcome will be a better opportunity to sustainably use and manage the Great Lakes and keep waters at a healthy level,” Naftzger said.
The compact, Birkholz said, establishes the process so all the Great Lakes states take care of the water.
“We have to be stewards, wise users of water resources,” she said. “We also have to provide for conservation measures to make sure that going forward, people use the water they need, but not more than they need, and don’t waste it.”
Naftzger said total compact costs have been about $300,000 a year.
“These are significant costs,” he said, “but when measured against the alternative of doing nothing and recognizing the value of the Great Lakes and the billions of dollars in economic and other services that they provide every year, the investment has been a good one and a good value.”
This water compact is different than water compacts in the East, where states jointly make decisions about water use in member states, and in the West, where rivers are effectively divided among member states. But Naftzger said the Great Lakes Compact model is transferrable to other regions and other challenges.
“Common goals have been set, but there are significant areas of flexibility for how each of the states will go about achieving those goals,” he said. “It really is something that is a unique approach, whereby everyone can come to a common point but go different directions to get there.”