If the city of Waukesha has its way, a dangerous precedent will be set for the entire Great Lakes region.
This Wisconsin community wants the Great Lakes governors to sign off on a first-of-its-kind diversion application that fails to meet the letter and spirit of the Great Lakes Compact, a much heralded regional agreement signed into federal law in 2008.
In recognition that the Great Lakes remain a critically important natural resource to the region at large, the compact categorically bans diversions of Great Lakes water except under extremely limited circumstances and then only to communities that have no other reasonable options. This is not the case with Waukesha.
In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency identified Waukesha as one of more than 50 Wisconsin communities with too much radium in its water. These committees were asked to take action to make their water safe to drink by 2006. Most did so, but not the city of Waukesha.
Unlike the dozens of other Wisconsin communities that invested in radium treatment and other reasonable solutions, Waukesha chose to look to the Great Lakes, one of our region’s most precious and fragile freshwater resources, to bail it out.
What’s more, Waukesha’s proposed Great Lakes diversion option promises to cost $150 million more than a non-diversion alternative, which would enable Waukesha to meet its drinking water needs by adding common-sense, available treatment technologies to its deep groundwater wells, while continuing to use its shallow wells.
Moreover, it appears that Waukesha’s diversion application is based not on the needs of its current city residents, but rather on the purported needs of households, and portions of other neighboring communities, included in a far larger water supply service area created by a state planning law. This expanded water supply service area almost doubles the size of the city's current water supply service area.
Nowhere does the Great Lakes compact allow for a diversion based on the possible future needs of expanded service areas. And the households and commercial entities located within this expanded area fail to meet two of the compact’s central requirements: they have not shown any real need for Great Lakes water nor demonstrated significant water conservation efforts to date.
Wisconsin’s reliance on a state planning law designed to foster growth as justification for this contentious, expanded water supply service area is equally misplaced, because the provisions of the Great Lakes Compact inarguably trump state law.
Finally, beyond its failure to comply with core compact requirements, Waukesha’s diversion application shows a blatant disregard for the people of Racine, a city struggling in a different and far greater scale than the city of Waukesha. It is Racine that will be forced to bear the public health risks and clean-up costs relating to Waukesha’s return of partially treated wastewater through the Root River, which runs through the heart of Racine and empties into the city’s Lake Michigan harbor. This is simply wrong.
In order to secure the protection and viability of our magnificent Great Lakes for generations to come, the Great Lakes governors on the Compact Council must ensure that the core principles of the Great Lakes Compact are fully and truly honored. For its shortcomings and missteps, Waukesha’s application must be denied.
Jodi Habush Sinykin is an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based nonprofit group that works to protect water resources. The group is a member of the Compact Implementation Coalition.