Landmark Wisconsin diversion of Great Lakes water is both praised and blasted

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By Sarah Coefield, coefield@msu.edu
Great Lakes Echo
May 22, 2009

A Great Lakes water diversion to replace a Wisconsin city’s radium-contaminated wells has been both hailed as a responsible application of new water use regulations and blasted as unwarranted and precipitous.

New Berlin is the first city with residents outside of the Great Lakes basin to receive water under the latest version of the Great Lakes Compact, a federal agreement approved by bordering states and ratified by Congress in 2008.

The diversion was approved Thursday by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Because New Berlin is both inside and outside of the basin – the land that drains to the Great Lakes – Wisconsin had sole discretion in approving the city’s application.  Cities completely outside the basin must receive approval from all the Great Lakes states.

Under Wisconsin’s conservation standards, New Berlin will return all the water it withdraws from Lake Michigan and also contribute local water to the lake.  That net gain for Lake Michigan represents a successful application of the Great Lakes Compact, Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes region, said Friday.

“It’s like we’re getting an import,” Buchsbaum said.  This withdrawal “is a good one to start with because it shows the compact … protects Great Lakes from exports.  It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Buchsbaum’s group had previously expressed concern that the original plan did not have water conservation plans.

“We are encouraged that the city heard our concerns and included additional conservation measures,” he said.  “It’s a step in right direction.  The Wisconsin DNR applied tough conservation measures to the proposal, which is the whole purpose of compact.”

The compact with the eight Great Lakes states requires water recipients to show that the withdrawals will not harm the lakes and that all the water will be returned.   The water New Berlin will return to Lake Michigan will be cleaner than the water it pulls out, Buchsbaum said.

But at least one Great Lakes expert is unconvinced Wisconsin’s conservation efforts are stringent enough.

“I’m very disappointed,” said David Dempsey, former environmental adviser to Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and an author of several books about Great lakes protection.  “I think the approval from Wisconsin is precipitous and unwarranted.  I don’t believe any of the Great Lakes states should go ahead with approving removal of water without stringent protections, and Wisconsin doesn’t.”

Great Lakes states should require that water diverted for cities outside the basin not facilitate city growth, he said. Measures should be in place to minimize water losses from the system.

Dempsey worries that the New Berlin diversion will usher in a wave of applications from communities that straddle the basin and not require regional approval.

“Now we have a system one state can approve, “ he said. “We had a stronger system before this compact, (when all eight Great Lakes governors) had to approve this type of diversion.”

Buchsbaum believes the New Berlin diversion is warranted.

“New Berlin had to get an alternative water source, there’s no question about that,” he said.

The only question was whether the city would pull from the Great Lakes or from wetlands on the other side of basin, he said.  The ecological damage from pulling water from Lake Michigan was nil, especially if compared to pulling water from wetlands.

As Michigan had no say in the withdrawal, it did not officially review it, said Ken Debeaussaert, director of that state’s Office of the Great Lakes.

The city’s plan to return water to Lake Michigan fits within the Great Lakes Compact’s provisions, he said  “It appears this proposal does maximize the return flow to Lake Michigan.”

The Great Lakes Compact requires Great Lakes states to work together in a spirit of cooperation, and working through water requests will be an ongoing learning process, DeBeaussaert said.

“We’ll learn as we move through this process,” he said.  “Our ultimate goal is to work collectively to protect the great resources we have.”