State Lawmakers Form Great Lakes Caucus
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
Forty lawmakers from eight states have launched the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus to create uniform laws in their respective states to curb water pollution, regulate water diversion projects and control the spread of non-native plants and animals accidentally introduced into the largest system of fresh surface water on earth.
The bipartisan caucus, which first met at the Council of State Governments' Midwestern Legislative Conference in Milwaukee last month, is made up of lawmakers from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, Ohio and Minnesota. It also includes representatives from the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
Federal, state and Canadian governments regulate the Great Lakes, and U.S. law prohibits diversion or export of water outside the basin unless all eight Great Lakes governors consent. But each state has a different process for approving withdrawals used for golf course irrigation or Perrier drinking water plants.
Organizers said the caucus is also needed because state laws lack consistency in regulating non-native zebra mussels and Asian carp that have invaded the Great Lakes and disturbed the balance of natural ecosystems.
Caucus members will hold a second meeting on the sidelines of CSG's annual national conference in Pittsburgh Oct. 23.
The caucus is unique to the region: other legislative groups from the same states have studied issues such as election reform and high-speed rail, but organizers said this is the first caucus to address Great Lakes water management.
"There's a lot of information that we could be sharing, that we don't each need to duplicate in our states. And there's a lot of scientific information in the university community that is not getting shared with legislators, and they're the ones who are writing the policy," Michigan Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, the chief architect of the caucus, told Stateline.org.
Governors have been making regional agreements about the Great Lakes since 1983 through the Council of Great Lakes Governors, and legislators want input.
Wisconsin Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said, "We have not put any effort at all into coordinating our laws with respect to the Great Lakes, and it's long overdue. With the increasing threats of invasive species, the concerns over beach closings that are stretching across the Great Lakes, and always the concerns over diversions from the Great Lakes, it's time for us to start paying close attention."
The Great Lakes Commission, a bi-national public agency created by state and federal law in 1955 that addresses Great Lakes management, is providing staff and scientific support for the caucus.
Mike Donahue, Great Lakes Commission president, said, "The intent of this caucus is not to strategically position the Great Lakes region to compete with other regions, but it's to help us operate more effectively and perhaps provide something of a model to other regions."
Illinois Rep. Karen May, D-Highland Park, said the governors' agreements have been effective, but "not all legislation percolates from the governor's office. We're the ones who are in the trenches working on legislation. I don't know whether each state needs to pass the same laws, but we need a common approach."
Indiana Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, said the caucus is "very much needed. Although Indiana does not have very much shoreline compared to other states, we all have a vested interest in what happens there."
Mike McCabe, director of CSG's Midwest office said, "Legislators bring a different perspective to the table when you talk about issues of common concern across state lines than do governors. And it's just important that the legislative voice also be heard."