The stakes have been raised and the pace is quickening in the Waukeska, Wis. quest to divert Lake Michigan water.
Last week a coalition of Wisconsin environmental groups called for Waukesha to submit a new proposal based on the number and significance of changes to the original document. The group also requested that the Wisconsin DNR hold public hearings on the revised request before making a recommendation.
“We need the City to provide a completely revised diversion application with ample time for public comment before the DNR begins its formal review,” said Steve Schmuki, president of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League, on behalf of the coalition in a press release.
A DNR representative acknowledged receiving the letter from the coalition and is working on a response.
The city lies just outside the Great Lakes basin and is under a federal mandate to find a new water source by 2018 as its wells are contaminated with radium. Its diversion request is based on the Great Lakes Compact and requires the approval of all eight Great Lake state governors.
Meanwhile Canada is starting to make its concerns known regarding Waukesha, and at a high level.
On a March visit to Milwaukee, Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer noted the precedent the Waukesha decision will set and the requests that are sure to follow. “Today’s project may make sense but 100 of them won’t,” Doer said in light of declining lake levels.
Why is the request by the environmental groups and the comment by the Canadian ambassador significant?
The environmental coalition wants to make sure the public gets the chance to comment on the final proposal. Too often when an agency announces a tentative decision on an initiative then puts it out for comment the die has already been cast.
The subsequent public comment process is perfunctory and is done to satisfy a procedural requirement or to give the appearance of securing input. If the coalition is successful it will have ensured that citizen voices from around the region will be heard.
More interesting though is Canada’s perspective.
Canada had a seat at the table when the Great Lakes Compact was negotiated but legally the Compact is between the eight U.S. states. Canada can only make an advisory recommendation on Waukesha.
But that’s still significant. Canada’s opinion is important.
If Canada raises serious objections to a Waukesha diversion would the Great Lake states turn a deaf ear?
Waukesha’s trek to Great Lakes water has been long — it started in 2003 — complex and at times controversial.
Waukesha’s attitude of entitlement to Lake Michigan water and hint of legal action if its request was denied didn’t set well outside of Wisconsin. The city eventually determined that it needed to win friends if its request was to have any chance.
Then Waukesha spurned its urban neighbor, Milwaukee, as the diversion source. A pipeline from Milwaukee was the most direct and least costly source of Lake Michigan water. However the two cities couldn’t come to terms — social and political issues clouded the negotia
tions — and Waukesha chose a more expensive and circuitous pipeline path.
Then there’s the amount of water Waukesha is requesting. It wants water for its current service area but also for neighboring towns that don’t necessarily have an existing need. That’s a red flag that will receive scrutiny as it flies in the face of the spirit if not the letter of the Compact.
I don’t know if Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water will be approved and it’s always risky to predict, especially when political considerations are involved.
There’s a good technical basis to reject it based on Waukesha expanding its service area. That’s not a minor detail and is on the radar of groups who have an interest.
Politically though the provision of the Compact that allows Waukesha to make a request was put in the Compact specifically for Waukesha. That could make it hard for the states to say no.
Waukesha should welcome a public comment period before the DNR makes its recommendation. To do less invites suspicion and it won’t play well outside of Wisconsin, especially if the environmental coalition makes a big deal of it.
And I’d pay close attention to Canada’s sentiments. It’s hard to see a path to Lake Michigan water if Canada makes a strong objection. Turning a deaf ear to Canada’s perspective could spoil the existing good will between the two countries on water diversion issues.
I’ve long-said that the biggest threat to Great Lakes water isn’t Arizona or tankers to arid areas of the world. It’s us right here in the basin. That’s why the Great Lakes states need to get Waukesha right.
Another round of public comment and paying attention to Canada’s concerns will help make that happen.