Public Policy Forum Blog

Conference casts Wisconsin as uniquely engaged with water issues

Last week’s “Water and People” conference presented by the Marquette University Law School underscored the importance of water to Wisconsin in terms of a natural resource, an economic development driver, and a commodity to be regulated and potentially traded. Numerous speakers described Wisconsin residents as being far ahead of other areas in understanding water’s importance and influence on quality of life.

Where water issues intersect with policy issues, Wisconsin’s abundance of water was identified as both a positive and a negative. Having so much water, which is priced relatively cheaply, may discourage some from realizing the need for conservation, taxes, regulatory policies, and relative equity in water distribution. This contrasts with public debates about oil and other energy sources, where scarcity and high prices generate concerned consumers, interest in conservation, and a multitude of regulations. Dr. Jame Schaefer, a professor of theology at Marquette University, did caution against viewing water as a commodity or resource, however, stressing that it has intrinsic worth beyond its usefulness.

As Wisconsin positions itself to emerge as a leader in freshwater technologies, the division between environmental concerns and economic development was identified by some conference panelists as a false dichotomy. Art Harrington, a partner at the Godfrey and Kahn law firm, said that a main challenge is not necessarily having regulations, but uncertainty about what regulations will be. He called for clear guidance from government on what water policy will be 15 years in the future, since certainty contributes to economic opportunity and investment.

Despite the codification of many water use policies in the Great Lakes Compact, some water issues are still up for debate. Maureen Taylor, Executive Director of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, cast water as a human rights issue, noting that 42,000 Detroit households had their water shut off in one year. The conference also explored questions such as: Who should have access to water and to whom does water belong? Who should pay for water and how should it be priced? As southeast Wisconsin moves forward in conservation, regulation, and entrepreneurship, we have the potential to break new ground in answering these questions within the context of their environmental, economic and ethical implications.

Stay tuned for the results of the Forum's latest People Speak Poll, conducted in conjunction with the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at UW-Milwaukee and The Business Journal, which probes public opinion on various water issues in the region. The poll results will be released in The Business Journal on March 12.