by Todd Ambs

Ten years ago, then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed state legislation to implement the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. Seven other Great Lakes states, two Canadian provinces, the U.S. Congress, and then-President George W. Bush all joined with Wisconsin and by the end of 2008 the Great Lakes Compact was a federal law.

The Compact (as it is commonly called), at its most fundamental level, is about how we sustainably manage the most significant surface freshwater resource on the planet—fresh water that more than 42 million people depend on for their drinking water in the United States and Canada. The glaciers had carved out our sense of place with a shovel so deep that you can see the Great Lakes from space, and yet we lacked a system to sustainably manage and protect that resource.

The task to create such a system seemed especially daunting as work began in the early part of this century as even then, many observers lamented our age of extreme partisan divide. Despite that backdrop, negotiations around the Compact had very little partisan rancor to it and was applauded by many.

Mike Leavitt, the U.S. EPA administrator at the time, called the Compact, “a textbook example of collaboration—two nations, multiple jurisdictions, NGOs, agriculture and industry—all working together for the greater good of the Lakes.”

A report commissioned after the Compact was completed hailed the process for its “transparency, public awareness, openness and fairness.” The report went on to applaud the “creation of a safe place allowing for candor, consideration of and (ultimately) elimination of alternative options.”

A decade later, the agreement continues to enjoy broad bipartisan support and is regarded as one of the most significant public water policy achievements in the world. At its heart, the Compact sets out a fairly revolutionary concept. The Compact says that what you do with water in Duluth, or Green Bay or Milwaukee, has an impact on people in Detroit or Buffalo or Toronto and as a result those folks should have a say in that decision.

The Compact establishes a public policy framework based on the notion that the Great Lakes basin is actually all connected.

Sadly, we don’t often take that approach with public policy, and we certainly don’t actually involve the public. Except when we developed the Compact. We held over 60 public meetings, had over 150 days of public comments, and received more than 50,000 comments on draft versions of the agreement. Key questions regarding the nature of the compact itself were shared with the public. And the possible answers provided by the public shaped how the final document was written.

The effort was spearheaded by Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Bob Taft, the Republican Governor of Ohio. Much of the negotiations were led by former Republican Ohio State Sen. Sam Speck, a true statesman.

This was an open, public process about how to manage our public water resources. The result was an agreement that belongs to all of us.

The work on the Compact also positioned us to work on the regional collaboration for Great Lakes restoration. When then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2004 calling on the federal government, led by the EPA, to develop a blueprint for action to restore the Great Lakes – we were ready.

Hundreds of groups, businesses, tribes and governmental entities and nearly 2,000 people across the basin helped to create the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. This process was also noteworthy for its open, transparent and inclusive process that produced a blueprint for action for the Great Lakes that had a tremendous amount of regional buy-in because so many individuals, groups, businesses and government agencies in this region saw the plan as ours.

Then in 2009, then-President Barack Obama followed through on his campaign pledge to fund the Collaboration Strategy and the first year of funding arrived in 2010. Today, nine years into this cleanup effort, over $2.8 billion dollars has been appropriated by the U.S. Congress to fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI. This GLRI has funded more than 4,000 projects around the Great Lakes basin, where federal investments have cleaned up toxic hot spots, restored wetlands, reduced runoff from cities and farms, and advanced efforts to keep new invasive species out of the lakes.

Today, we debate the merits of proposals for water for Waukesha, WI and for Racine, WI to provide water to the new FoxConn facility and whether those requests comply with the Compact. But no one questions the need for, or legitimacy of, the Compact.

Today, we discuss how best to focus GLRI funding for maximum positive impact for restoring and protecting our lakes, but the initiative itself retains broad, bipartisan support and polls show broad support from all sectors of the citizenry in our region.

Unfortunately, these templates for success are often ignored today as our government increasingly takes action about our public resources without involving the public, or career public servants and scientists with expertise in this complex field.

Representative government only works when those who are represented get to take part in the government. Open, transparent processes produced the Great Lakes Compact and the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration strategy, and a decade later they continue to enjoy broad bipartisan support.

Current and future elected officials working to protect and restore our public water resources can learn valuable lessons from these now 10-year-old achievements.

Todd L. Ambs was the Water Division Administrator for the Wisconsin DNR from 2003-2010. He currently is Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.