Last summer, frustrated by unending debate over the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, freshman state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) did what any citizen who wanted to educate lawmakers and citizens on the issue might do: make a documentary.
"I'm not a filmmaker," confesses Mason, whose half-hour movie is scheduled for its imminent debut on YouTube. But he believes he and his camcorder managed to capture one great truth: The Great Lakes are more than a shared resource, they're a shared way of life.
From Michigan cities to Wisconsin farms to Ontario fishing villages, people saw the lakes as part of their communities. "When you review the tape," Mason says, "the scene was different, but the story was the same."
The compact is an eight-state agreement that would mostly ban the export of water outside of the Great Lakes basin and create an approval process for communities within the basin. Governors from all eight states signed the pact in 2005, and legislatures in Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana have approved it, with others on the way.
But in Wisconsin, some Republican lawmakers would like to redraft new provisions, which could force the process to begin anew. Some have warned that Wisconsin could put the whole agreement in jeopardy.
Originally, the compact was a response to fear that Great Lakes water could be shipped to dry areas across the globe. The lakes, which hold almost a fifth of the world's fresh surface water, have long drawn glances from dry eyes.
During the recent drought in the Southeast, officials and commentators in these "dry" states began grumbling about the Midwest's bounty. And in the desert Southwest, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told the press not to worry about uncertain water supplies, saying, "States like Wisconsin are awash in water."
Mason, a fifth-generation Racine native, became involved in the issue through his longtime advocacy for the Root River, which winds through his hometown. In late 2006, during Mason's run for the Assembly, the city of Waukesha drew up a proposal to obtain Lake Michigan water. Per the conditions of the proposed compact, it would involve returning treated wastewater to the watershed - via the Root.
"All of a sudden, it's like, 'Okay, they're talking about dumping 20 million gallons of treated sewage a day into my river,'" says Mason.
The pact would not necessarily stop Waukesha from accessing Great Lakes water. But it would make any such diversion subject to the approval of other states, and establish criteria the city would have to follow.
Mason believes much more is at stake than simply working out who has access to the Great Lakes' water.
"Wisconsin's economic well-being, its cultural well-being, its identity, are all wrapped up in the lakes," he says. "It would be devastating to the state as a whole not to protect those resources."
Mary Lazich (RNew Berlin) makes similar points about the need to protect the Great Lakes. But she opposes ratifying the compact in its current form.
Lazich believes that the governors who signed off on the document in 2005 overlooked some serious flaws. She's especially critical of the unanimous approval clause, which "would permit one of the governors of the Great Lakes states to veto a request by any other state for water."
The provision is in place for any diversions outside of the watershed. But Lazich says the resource isn't shared equally enough for this to make sense. She points to Michigan, which is surrounded by lakes and sitting almost entirely in the Great Lakes basin, as a state that would never need others' permission for its own water projects, giving it little incentive to grant those rights to others.
Two Republican lawmakers - Rep. Scott Gunderson, chairman of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Committee, and Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch - say they would like to redraft the pact, making substantial revisions. Earlier this month, the pair sent a letter to the president of Ohio's Senate, seeking to delay that state's ratification.
"We share your commitment to...protect the waters of the Great Lakes from diversions to far-flung regions of the country," they wrote. "[But we also] share your belief that no one state has the ability to unilaterally stifle the economic development needs of another state."
Lazich agrees, saying that enabling another state to unilaterally limit diversions "is just not in the best interest of our state."
In fact, however, the compact would make things easier for New Berlin, which Lazich represents. That's because, while Waukesha sits outside of the Lake Michigan watershed, New Berlin straddles it. When it rains in New Berlin, half the water is headed to Lake Michigan, the other half to the Mississippi River.
Under the proposed compact, "straddling" cities only need approval from the governor of their respective state. Under current laws, New Berlin would need the approval of all eight governors.
Rep. Mason thinks the issue has dragged on long enough. He says the recent call for changes to the compact is just "two legislators...trying to hold things up." And he's worried they may succeed.
The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact was formally introduced as an active bill in Wisconsin last week. But Gunderson and Huebsch have the power to keep it from coming to a vote in their respective houses. And time is running out: The Legislature session is slated to end on March 13.
Mason hopes his documentary can help make the case that the compact is vital and that seemingly small-scale requests for water could become a big deal.
The Great Lakes, he explains, were a one-time gift from the glaciers. And, taken together, rainfall, snowmelt, rivers and streams recharge only 1% of the lakes' total volume each year; if more than that is depleted, the water levels will decline. (In fact, both Lake Superior and Michigan dipped to record lows late last year.) And that's cause for concern.
In his documentary, Mason says, a woman from Hamilton, Ontario, puts this fear into words.
"It's not Waukesha per se," she remarks. "It's what Waukesha represents. The lakes could fail for a couple of reasons. One could be an enormous pipeline to Las Vegas. But the other could be, you know, a bunch of little straws coming out of the lake. Waukesha represents the first straw. It's possible that the lakes will fail via death by a thousand straws."