Editorial: Great Lakes state governor needs to make a statement

Traverse City Record-Eagle, January 17, 2015

Sometimes a simple “no” is the best answer for the most complex questions.

Those two little letters combine to carry some pretty serious clout, especially when we’re talking about veto power granted to eight governors by a law passed in 2008 to keep Great Lakes water, well, in the lakes.

And a proposal sent to Gov. Rick Snyder earlier this month presents a perfect opportunity for the Great Lakes State’s chief to make a succinct statement on the behalf of his water-loving constituents.

That proposal — about seven years in the making — asks eight governors whose states share Great Lakes shoreline to approve a plan from a Wisconsin city to draw water for its municipal supply from Lake Michigan. It sounds like an innocuous request on first blush, but that city, Waukesha, sits outside a line drawn in the sand in 2008 when eight states and the federal government entered the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

The Waukesha request asks for an exception from the rules its own legislature and governor embraced when they signed the law. Those regulations prohibit piping, shipping, diverting or otherwise absconding with so much as a bucket of water from the Great Lakes Basin for use in any location outside the basin’s natural boundary line. It provides equal treatment for cities as nearby as Waukesha and as far away as Los Angeles.

Yet the Wisconsin city wants to exploit a loophole in the law and substitute Lake Michigan for the radium-contaminated aquifer from which it draws water today. The substitution would quickly alleviate the city’s water problem, but experts said Waukesha could adequately meet its needs without constructing a $200-million straw to suck 10 million gallons of water from the lake per day. And granting the exception could send the Great Lakes down a slippery slope where other cities outside the basin could mount legal challenges to future denials.

But that’s where a little help built into the 2008 compact by some forward-thinking lawmakers becomes a factor. Each Great Lakes governor has the power individually to scuttle the proposal no matter how many other governors bless the deal.

Few governors who will face the decision in the coming months — except for Badger State Gov. Scott Walker — have so much as whispered about their intentions. Walker last month told reporters he would contact the seven other compact governors to lobby them for votes.

And grumblings from states like New York and Ohio have surfaced, but stopped short of gubernatorial stances on the subject. And mum is the word from the Great Lakes State’s governor’s office.