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UPDATED: Racial justice advocates, environmentalists oppose water diversion to Waukesha

UPDATED: A coalition of progressive, racial justice groups in Wisconsin is opposing Waukesha’s quest to divert water from Lake Michigan.

The announcement was released on Aug. 28, meeting a deadline for public comment to the state on the issue.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held three public hearings earlier in August to hear testimony on the city of Waukesha’s Great Lakes Water Diversion application and in response to the department’s release of its draft Environmental Impact Statement and Technical Review on June 25. The DNR held hearings in the cities of Waukesha, Milwaukee and Racine and saw well over 450 attendees, of which at least 100 provided verbal testimony to the DNR.

In addition, comments were submitted to the DNR outside the hearings.

Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said, “We were impressed but in no way surprised at the great turn out at all three public hearings. This is an important issue for our state and our region and a decision that will affect people’s lives and our Great Lakes, which are only 1 percent renewable by rain or snowmelt. The number of people at the hearings sends a very clear message to the DNR that the public is taking this diversion decision very seriously and they should too.”

The NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski filed comments with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The groups asked the state to deny Waukesha’s application for diversion of water from Lake Michigan.

The groups object to the application because diverting water to the suburbs will worsen segregation and racial disparities in the region, according to a news release.

“Thus far, the environmental impact study has utterly failed to address, much less resolve, the needs and concerns of communities of color,” said Karyn Rotker, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

“Allowing a Lake Michigan water diversion to enable continued unrestrained sprawl and job migration will have the inevitable effect of perpetuating racial and economic segregation in the region, to the clear disadvantage of persons of color, especially African-Americans,” stated Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP.

The release from the coalition said it is one thing for a water diversion application to seek to serve an existing community that has no other alternative. It is quite another for a community to seek to divert water not only to meet its current needs, but to support and undergird industrial, commercial and residential expansion — especially when the benefits of that expansion exclude communities of color, mostly African-Americans, in the region.

“And the requested diversion is not needed to serve an existing “community” in need of water, as the Great Lakes Compact requires,” said Grzezinski.

As comments and studies submitted by others, such as the Compact Implementation Coalition, make clear, the city of Waukesha could meet its water needs without diverting Lake Michigan water. That it wants more water to support future growth and expansion outside the city limits does not justify the diversion, the coalition said.

“If a diversion is not used to increase development in the Waukesha suburbs, then there’s more incentive for those jobs and employers to locate or relocate in the city of Milwaukee,” added the Rev. Willie Brisco, MICAH president. “And we all know that is something our community needs.”

Also, on Aug. 28, environmental groups in Compact Implementation Coalition of environmental groups planned to submit comments “to the DNR expressing concerns that the city of Waukesha: 1) has not justified why it needs a daily maximum supply that is more than double its current use; 2) does not consider all reasonable alternatives to provide potable water for its residents; and 3) has not removed its request to divert Great Lakes water to communities who do not need it and who have not employed water conservation measures. The Compact requires these actions before an entity can request an exception from the ban on diversions.”

The CIC comments were written by more than a dozen legal and technical experts from nine local, state and regional environmental organizations.

“While the CIC’s comments will be some of the more extensive comments in opposition to Waukesha’s request for Great Lakes water, they will not be the only ones,” said Ezra Meyer of Clean Wisconsin. “People from all across the Great Lakes Basin and across Wisconsin care about this world-class resource. They fought hard to see the Great Lakes Compact passed to protect the Lakes for the long run and now they don’t want to see the compact or the lakes compromised. People from Ohio, Michigan and Illinois came to DNR’s hearings last week to tell our natural resources protection agency to say no, as did dozens of people from Racine, Milwaukee and Waukesha. Residents and ratepayers in Waukesha know this is a bad deal. We are confident that the written comments submitted to the DNR by today’s deadline will reflect an even broader base of grassroots support for the Great Lakes and against Waukesha’s fatally flawed proposal.”

Since the DNR released its draft Environmental Impact Statement and Technical Review on June 25, the CIC has been working to make sure the public is aware of the consequences of approving Waukesha’s water diversion application as it stands.

“What happens in Waukesha doesn’t stay in Waukesha. People from all across the Great Lakes region are concerned that Waukesha’s diversion application does not meet the requirements in the Great Lakes Compact,” said Marc Smith, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation. 

“The public has spoken: Waukesha’s application to divert Great Lakes water is not in the best interests of the Great Lakes region,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Wisconsin DNR must maintain the integrity of the Great Lakes Compact in both letter and spirit, by holding Waukesha’s application to its requirements and by making certain the science is sound, the data current, and the public’s questions answered before the application is approved.”

The DNR plans to release its final decision in December.

If approved by the Wisconsin DNR, all eight Great Lakes states governors will have the power to approve or deny the proposal and the premiers of two Canadian provinces will formally weigh in on the decision.