The Waukesha Diversion Still Controversial So Close to Final Decision

For most people in the United States, access to safe drinking water is a given; for Amanda Payne, the vice president of public policy for the Waukesha County Business Alliance, providing clean water for her one-year-old is something she has to think about every day.  Even though it’s normal for a pediatrician to recommend bottled water for children under two, Payne does it for another reason: her city’s water is contaminated with naturally-occurring, carcinogenic radium.

Waukesha, Wisconsin was once famous for its freshwater springs around the turn of the century.  A small city located 17 miles to the west of Lake Michigan and 1.5 miles outside the Great Lakes Basin, Waukesha found itself lacking in its once-sustainable water source due to over-pumping groundwater and applied for a water diversion from Lake Michigan in 2010.

A water diversion from the Great Lakes means taking a certain amount of water out through pipes to an area outside the lakes’ watershed.  The Great Lakes Compact was created in 2008 to prevent these diversions from occurring in large-scale operations to conserve the valuable resource.  Included in the Compact is an exception rule where a community that straddles the Great Lakes Basin, like Waukesha, may apply for a water diversion if it has no reasonable alternative.

Waukesha has faced intense controversy over its diversion application from all over the Great Lakes Basin.  Environmental organizations, like the Compact Implementation Coalition and the National Wildlife Federation, oppose what they feel would be an unnecessary diversion they say does not meet the standards of the Great Lakes Compact.

This is also the first test case for the Compact.  People throughout the watershed are worried that Waukesha could set a precedent for many other communities to apply for water.  Payne says “There are very clear guidelines to the Great Lakes Compact and who can and cannot apply for water . . . It’s not going to open up a floodgate of communities that can apply.”

Marc Smith, the senior policy manager at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says the Great Lakes Compact has recognized the five freshwater lakes and their watersheds as one system.  “Whatever happens in one area impacts the entire system,” Smith says.  “Whatever happens to one aspect of, say, Lake Ontario way over in New York, a withdrawal or some sort of resource impact on Lake Ontario could have an impact on Lake Superior.”

There is even disagreement within Waukesha’s state.  Karen Schapiro, an environmental lawyer and adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin, is concerned about the effect of Wisconsin’s service area plan.  Wisconsin has a state law that says a community that provides water treatment to other communities needs to have the same water service area if a new water supply is added, which here is Lake Michigan water.  According to Schapiro, this situation is not consistent with the Compact.  “I think they are at risk it will not pass, and mostly because of the service supply area issue.”

After years of reviewing the application, the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council, otherwise known as the Compact Council, approached its next step.  On April 21st, they had their first meeting to review the findings of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body.  This consists of the Great Lakes states governors and the Ontario and Québec heads of state.  They were given an opportunity to bring up any concerns they have about the Waukesha diversion application before the final decision is made on June 13.

Waukesha’s mayor, Shawn Reilly, feels confident after the public hearing that took place in Waukesha on February 18th that the Regional Body will approve of the application.  “Our application is very thorough, [and] it meets the requirements of the Compact.”  These requirements say the community needs to demonstrate that it has no other reasonable alternative and that the water would only be used for public water supplies, among many others.

The city has many water issues.  The deepwater aquifers are depleted and are contaminated with high radium levels, which has to be treated by 2018; the reverse osmosis treatment wastes 20% of the water it brings up, so only treating the water is not sustainable.  There is a layer of shale above the water table that prevents water levels from replenishing quickly.  People are also concerned about the return flow being dumped in the already damaged Root River.

Reilly and Dan Duchniak, Waukesha’s water utilities manager, say groups like the Compact Implementation Council keep releasing misinformation about the application.  According to Duchniak, Waukesha would be forced to draw water from shallow aquifers that would negatively impact around 700 acres, or 55 football fields, of surrounding wetlands if the diversion does not pass.

Reilly says there is a misunderstanding between the only reasonable option and the last option.  “I believe the CIC is saying that . . . we need to have our aquifer totally pumped dry before we can get approval,” he says.  “No one is going to be making decisions by the Regional Body to say, ‘Okay, you need to have no water available other than Lake Michigan water,’ and that is what the CIC is attempting to say is the standard.  It is very, very clear that that is not the legal standard.”

Whichever way the decision goes, Schapiro says the issue will not be over.  She thinks the city will file a lawsuit if the application is not approved.  If it is approved, she says opposing environmental groups may also file a lawsuit.

“It’s not as though there’s a plan B that’s a great option for us,” says Payne.  “You can’t just ignore the fact that you have residents who need safe water.  It’s not a problem that’s going to go away on its own if we just continue to ignore it or not solve it.”

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