Great Lakes states OK diversion of Lake Michigan water

A panel of governors on a Great Lakes regional council on June 21 has approved a request from Waukesha to divert water from Lake Michigan.

A Great Lakes compact prohibits most diversions of water outside the watershed boundaries, but allows for communities such as Waukesha, which straddles a border, to request an exemption.

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, in a press statement, thanked the Great Lakes governors and their representatives. “Today’s vote is an enormous accomplishment for the people of Waukesha, after more than a decade of work,” he said. “The regional commitment to implementing the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact is also a victory for protecting this tremendous resource.

“The same states and provinces that authored the compact and who adopted laws to implement it, have determined that the Waukesha application meets the compact’s standards for borrowing Great Lakes water. We greatly appreciate the good faith they showed in focusing on the facts and science of our application.”

The city’s request was challenged by a number of environmental groups that said Waukesha has other alternatives and options to address problems with its drinking water.

“There are a lot of emotions and politics surrounding this issue but voting yes — in cooperation with our Great Lakes neighbors — is the best way to conserve one of our greatest natural resources,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said, according to the AP. “Mandating strict conditions for withdrawing and returning the water sets a strong precedent for protecting the Great Lakes.”

Waukesha had received an endorsement of its request last month from a panel for eight Great Lakes states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and also the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The endorsement came with conditions, including the requirement that Waukesha reduce the volume of water it would withdraw from 10.1 million gallons a day to 8.2 million gallons and a day. The city also must reduce the area to get the Lake Michigan water.

The Wisconsin Compact Implementation Coalition, consisting of environmental organizations in the state, issued a statement on June 21 expressing appreciation for the serious review given the application.

“We especially appreciate how the regional body and compact council heeded the concern, echoed by tens of thousands of Great Lakes residents, that Waukesha’s inclusion of neighboring communities in its original application did not meet the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact. We have no doubt that the extent of public engagement across the Great Lakes states, together with the advocacy efforts of our regional environmental partners, contributed to improvements in the diversion proposal ultimately approved by the compact council.”

The coalition, however, expressed continued concern that the council “did not fully resolve other flaws in Waukesha’s proposal to ensure that this precedent-setting application meets all of the rigorous requirements laid out in the Great Lakes Compact. We continue to believe the compact council should have denied Waukesha’s proposal to divert Great Lakes water until the remaining areas of non-compliance were remedied.”

The coalition — Clean Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Waukesha County Environmental Action League, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and also attorney Peter McAvoy’s firm — continued, “While we acknowledge that Waukesha must address the radium in its drinking water, we maintain Waukesha can safely meet its community’s drinking water needs now and well into the future without a diversion from the Great Lakes. In fact, in light of the conditions approved today that rightly reduce the area served and the amount of water originally requested by Waukesha, the evidence that Waukesha has a reasonable water supply alternative is even stronger. Regrettably, the Compact Council also has chosen to leave unaddressed a number of other concerns voiced by our coalition and citizens across the Great Lakes basin, including lack of a sufficient monitoring plan for return flow through the Root River, no reduction in the maximum amount of water Waukesha can draw from the Great Lakes from 16.7 million gallons per day, and failure to require a new needs analysis with the reduced diversion area.”

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

On the Web

Details on the application.