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Lawmakers in Ohio, Wisconsin seek changes to Great Lakes water compact

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Legislative leaders in Ohio and Wisconsin proposed changes Thursday in a Great Lakes water compact that could force renegotiation of the deal, which has been ratified by two states and is moving toward approval in four others.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Legislative leaders in Ohio and Wisconsin proposed changes Thursday in a Great Lakes water compact that could force renegotiation of the deal, which has been ratified by two states and is moving toward approval in four others.

The compact, signed by the governors of the eight Great Lakes states in 2005, would prohibit most diversions of water from the region's drainage basin and require each state to regulate water use.

It needs approval from the states' legislatures and Congress to take effect.

Minnesota and Illinois have ratified the compact, which supporters describe as essential to prevent Great Lakes water from someday being sent to thirsty Sun Belt states. Lawmakers in Indiana and New York have approved ratification bills that await signatures from their governors. Bills are pending in the Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures.

The strongest opposition has surfaced in Ohio and Wisconsin, where ranking Republicans are seeking revisions. Altering the complex document at this point could derail it, said Molly Flanagan, a water program manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

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"This amounts to a hijacking of the compact that jeopardizes the region's ability to protect the Great Lakes," Flanagan said.

The changes were proposed in a news release issued by Bill Harris, president of the Ohio Senate, and Michael Huebsch, speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.

"Despite assertions to the contrary, changing the compact is not an insurmountable task," Harris said.

Under the compact, Great Lakes water could be diverted for use outside the basin in a county that straddles the basin boundary. But any one of the eight states could veto such a plan.

Harris and Huebsch want to allow such diversions if a majority of the states approve.

The issue is crucial in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha wants to tap into Lake Michigan for drinking water because its wells are contaminated. Waukesha is about 15 miles west of the lake but just outside the natural divide, although it is part of a county that straddles the boundary.

"The only fair and just resolution is that these types of decisions must be made by a majority vote," Huebsch and Rep. Scott Gunderson, chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, said in a letter to Harris.

Supporters of the single-state veto say it simply continues existing policy. Federal law already lets any Great Lakes governor reject a diversion.

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Harris and Huebsch also want to reword a provision that says waters within the Great Lakes basin are "precious public natural resources shared and held in trust by the states."

That provision has drawn criticism in Ohio as a potential infringement on property rights by treating groundwater as publicly owned. Flanagan said the compact protects existing water use rights and the critics are misreading it.

Such issues were discussed a length by the Council of Great Lakes Governors during four years of negotiations that produced the compact, she said.

"By changing the language of the compact, it appears that members of the Ohio Senate and Wisconsin Assembly wish to undo all the hard work that went into reaching this compromise," Flanagan said.

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