Water conservation could become law

Minnesota already requires a permit for withdrawing 10,000 gallons per day.

by Allison Wickler

Minnesota is proving itself a leader in water resources management.

Of the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes, Minnesota is closest to adopting the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which was passed by both the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate this month.

The compact would prevent new diversions of water out of the Great Lakes basin and also establish new standards for water use by the basin states.

While each state’s governor and the premiers of Quebec and Ontario signed a preliminary commitment in December 2005, Minnesota would be the first state to adopt the compact if Gov. Tim Pawlenty signs the recently passed bill, which will likely happen by the end of the month.

The only states currently in the process of passing a similar bill are Illinois and Indiana.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who was the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, said without the compact the Great Lakes basin is protected by a weak federal law, the Water Resources Development Act of 1986.

Without strict law, he said, there have been attempts to take water from the basin and transport it as far away as Asia.

The compact is fairly non-controversial for Minnesota because many of the standards are actually lower than Minnesota’s current water regulation system, said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

For example, the compact requires a permit for any withdrawal of 100,000 gallons of water per day by states within the basin, while Minnesota already requires a permit for withdrawing 10,000 gallons per day.

“Our set of water regulations Ö is just a model for all the other states,” she said.

Jim Japs, assistant director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Waters, said Minnesota has statutes that define the priorities for water use, which many other states do not.

He said it’s important to set standards for withdrawing water from an area because increasing the number of people taking water increases the potential for conflict.

He also said the costs associated with shifting resources will eventually create a deficit.

“We’re talking about sustainable economy as well as environment,” he said.

However, other states are having a more difficult time determining how they can commit to the standards set in the compact.

Wisconsin is still in the early stages of researching the feasibility of the compact, said Dan Johnson, chief of staff for Wisconsin state Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, who is chair of Wisconsin’s compact study committee.

He said the compact gives each state the ability to dictate exceptions to the set standards.

“It’s that ‘with the exception of’ that Wisconsin is struggling with,” he said.

Johnson said there are issues with some counties in the basin that contain “straddling communities” which are outside the basin, but still want to use Great Lakes water.

Under the compact, these communities could request access to the Great Lakes basin water, but every state must agree to the request.

“Each state is giving up a little bit of their sovereignty to another state,” he said. “And sometimes legislators just don’t want to do that.”

While Two Harbors and Duluth are the two main Minnesota cities that use the Great Lakes as a major resource, Johnson said a greater percentage of the population in other states actually lives within the basin.

In Wisconsin, about 60 percent of people use Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

“Anything we do here in Wisconsin will impact a lot more people,” he said. “If a state like Minnesota isn’t impacted, they have nothing to lose.”

While Minnesota legislators passed the bill relatively quickly, Johnson said it could take years for the compact to go into effect.

Japs said Minnesota’s early passage shows the state’s concern for its natural resources.

“People are passionate about Lake Superior and the Great Lakes,” he said. “Minnesota is out in front because we are concerned about the management of the resource.”