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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher October 28, 2013

Wisconsin sold fresh water to California, potential Democratic congressional candidate says

After their father and five other worshippers were shot to death on Aug. 5, 2012 at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., brothers Amar and Pardeep Kaleka became active with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Pardeep said in a video for the national group, of which the Oak Creek and Milwaukee mayors are members, that 34 Americans are murdered with guns every day. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Ten months later, Amar (also known as Amardeep) stepped into an even more public role, announcing plans to run in 2014 against eight-term U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate.  

Kaleka, a 35-year-old Democrat and documentary filmmaker, was interviewed about his planned candidacy on the Oct. 20, 2013 edition of "Upfront with Mike Gousha," a public affairs program on WISN-TV (Channel 12) in Milwaukee.

When Gousha asked Kaleka what he would say to people who might view him as a one-dimensional candidate focused on guns, Kaleka turned the conversation to the economy.

"I mean, gun legislation is just one of the many things that are holding us down economically. A number of other things, immigration reform, the economic disparity that we’re experiencing, has to do with our thoughts and models that we’ve had in place for now, well over two decades," he said.

"I mean, the Midwest is a great example of how we’re losing so many factories and manufacturing jobs and agricultural jobs. For example, we used to be called America's Dairyland. Now, California is called America's Dairyland. We sent them fresh water, and we sold it to them. Ultimately, we didn't get anything in exchange. We lost a bunch of jobs, a bunch of farmland."

It’s been two decades since California eclipsed Wisconsin in milk production, although Wisconsin still calls itself America’s Dairyland.

But we’ve never heard that Wisconsin had sold fresh water to California to boost their dairy industry -- and lost jobs and farmland in the process.

Wouldn’t there have been a titanic hue and cry if that had ever happened?

Big ideas

To be sure, there have been some grandiose proposals to sell Great Lakes water to faraway places.

In 1998, a Canadian company actually obtained a permit from Ontario to ship fresh water by tankers from Lake Superior to Asia. But after a backlash in Canada and the United States, the permit was canceled two weeks later.

In 2007, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson raised the possibility of exporting Great Lakes water to the Southwest, calling for a national water policy and saying "states like Wisconsin are awash in water." But less than two weeks after Richardson’s comments rattled Midwest politicians, his campaign issued a statement saying Richardson "in no way proposes federal transfers of water from one region of the nation to the other."

The following year, the eight Great Lakes states reached agreement on the Great Lakes Compact, which bans Great Lakes water from being "diverted," or piped out of the basin, with a few exceptions, such as the possible sale of Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek to another Milwaukee suburb, Waukesha, which is under consideration. Even then, Waukesha would have to return 100 percent of the water by volume to the lake by discharging treated wastewater to the Root River in Franklin.

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Even with the compact, officials remain wary of outsiders coveting Great Lakes water, said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency that promotes the development, use and conservation of water in the Great Lakes basin.

So, was there a Wisconsin sale of fresh water to California before the 2008 compact?

"No way. It's really simple," Eder said of Kaleka’s claim. "He’s wrong. I don’t know where he’s getting his information, but it’s not based in fact."

Two other experts -- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water use section chief Eric Ebersberger, and Peter Annin, managing director of the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, which does research on water resources -- were also dumbfounded and emphatic: No water sale to California has ever occurred.

And if it never occurred, it certainly didn’t boost the dairy industry there, or mean lost jobs or farmland here.

Indeed, federal figures show that in 2012, Wisconsin produced 27.2 billion pounds of milk, a record for the state, and led the nation by producing 2.79 billion pounds of cheese.

Said Annin, author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars": "I’m not aware of any instance where the State of Wisconsin, or anybody in the state of Wisconsin, sold water to California. There’ve been a lot of weird proposals, but they’ve never actually happened."

We also checked with the federal Mississippi River Commission, which assured us that water from the Mississippi River was never sold to California.

Kaleka, meanwhile, told us he meant to say "we thought about sending them fresh water."

He added: "I'm going to have to take my hit on this. It was a sloppy response to a very big problem of local and national economics."

But on even that he is off. None of the information Kaleka provided us indicates that Wisconsin even considered selling water to California.

And we could find no record of it.

Our rating

Kaleka said Wisconsin sold fresh water to California and "lost a bunch of jobs (and) a bunch of farmland."

There’s no evidence of such a water sale, something that would have made for countless front-page stories, let alone it leading to a loss of jobs and farmland in Wisconsin.

The statement is false and ridiculous: Pants on Fire.

You can comment on this item on the Journal Sentinel's web site.

Our Sources, "Upfront with Mike Gousha" interview (quote at 1:40) of Amar Kaleka, broadcast Oct. 20, 2013

Interview, Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency that promotes the development, use and conservation of water in the Great Lakes basin.  executive director Tim Eder, Oct. 23, 2013

Interview, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water use section chief Eric Ebersberger, Oct. 22, 2013

Interview, University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative managing director Peter Annin,  author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, Oct. 22, 2013

Ottawa Citizen, "Ontario revokes water-export permit," May 15, 1998

Calgary Herald, "Ottawa intends to torpedo Lake Superior water shipments," May 2, 1998

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Richardson backs off on water shifts," Oct. 16, 2007

Email interview, Amar Kaleka, Oct. 23, 2013

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Wisconsin sold fresh water to California, potential Democratic congressional candidate says

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