Chapter 12

Marching toward a Compact (excerpt)

AFTER THE ANNEX 2001 signing ceremony at Niagara Falls, the governors and premiers dispatched a team of aides to carry Great Lakes water-management negotiations into the next stage. This “working group” of lawyers, policy specialists, and water managers was responsible for turning the Annex principles into comprehensive policy. The team included a few representatives from each jurisdiction—the eight Great Lakes states and two provinces. Some members were fairly new to the water-policy arena, but most had been dealing with Great Lakes water issues for years—some even helped draft the Great Lakes Charter back in 1985. After the Annex 2001 signing, the governors and premiers promised the public that a final Great Lakes water-management system would be crafted in thirty-six months. The working group would end up needing all that time—and then some—to get the job done.

The next three years were a grind—marked by an endless string of laborious conference calls and face-to-face negotiations where bureaucrats haggled over enormously important legal language as well as minutiae. In short order, the working group decided to craft two water-management accords, not one. The first was the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, sort of an updated version of the nonbinding Great Lakes Charter. It detailed the promises made between the governors and premiers to implement policies to protect regional waters for the foreseeable future. Federal law may have forbidden the states and provinces from signing a water treaty, but nothing prevented them from adopting parallel water regulations on either side of the international border. The second document was the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. It was designed to be a binding agreement among the eight Great Lakes states, and it codified precisely how the governors would uphold their side of the International Agreement. The catch was that, in order to be binding, the Compact would eventually need to be adopted by all eight Great Lakes legislatures as well as by the U.S. Congress. Together, the International Agreement and the Compact came to be called the Annex Implementing Agreements.

From the start, the working group grasped the ambitious nature of its task. If the Lochhead Report represented the initial research phase, and Annex 2001 was the road map, the implementing agreements were the final product. While the International Agreement was the driver during the negotiations, the Compact was arguably the more important of the two documents—not because the United States was more important than Canada, but because the Compact was binding. The Compact was designed as an Iron Curtain of sorts along the U.S. side of the watershed, where everyone agreed the primary problems lay.1

More than once the talks teetered on the edge of failure. Crafting a new water-management paradigm among ten jurisdictions, across an international boundary, in the absence of a crisis was not going to be easy. “What we are trying to do is create a system that says people who use water in Milwaukee have an impact on the people who live in Québec City—and that the people in Québec City ought to have a say in that. That’s a huge concept,” declares Todd Ambs, head of the Water Division at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Of all the things that I do in my job, this is the only thing that people will still be talking about fifty years from now. It’s about the future. It’s about having a system in place to deal with problems that we don’t have today.”

A core group—one or two people from each jurisdiction—kept the process on track through regular conference calls and frequent in-person negotiating sessions. The in-person meetings were chaired by Sam Speck, director of the Ohio DNR, the “elder statesman” who was instrumental in crafting compromises and bridging philosophical divides. “He would always be able to pull it back from the brink when one of us was ready to slit the throat of somebody else,” says one negotiator ...