Stakes raised in Waukesha’s Great Lakes water quest

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


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.chicagoview

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.


8 thoughts on “Stakes raised in Waukesha’s Great Lakes water quest

  1. Waukesha currently is treating for radium in their deep well. They also have many shallow wells that don’t have radium issues and they mix water from both sources. They essentially meet radium criteria 11 months of the year, except for the hot summer months when they can’t meet demand. That highlights how important the conservation elements of the Compact are—those seeking a diversion need to maximize conservation first. Waukesha has been better than most communities on setting up conservation pricing and limiting some lawn watering, etc, but they could do much more and likely live within their local water means. They do have some issues replenishing their wells due to a shale layer, but they could do something like riverbank inducement where they take water from the Fox River/shallow wells inducing river water, distribute that, and then recycle the water back to the river upstream after running through their treatment plant. Many of us think they have local options. Waukesha’s request for a huge water supply service area (50% bigger or so than their current area) should also be looked at closely, as that is a scary precedent. While it makes sense to do some future projection of water supply areas as pipeline building is in the mix, is it appropriate to include vast areas of farmland that currently aren’t served by Waukesha? That seems like a diversion being sought to enable sprawl, and that is a scary precedent from the perspective of cumulative effects throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

  2. I would ask how are they removing the Radium now? Or are they just drinking it? How wide spread is the Radium water in Wisconsin? Will this set a precedent? If they have ample well water (as in volume) would a radium scrubber (for lack of a better term)of some kind be possible?

  3. If Waukesha is requesting more water than its service area, they should be denied access to those resources. The average outflow rate of the Mississippi is consistent with that of the St. Lawrence because one third of the Mississippi’s outflow is channelled down the Atchafalaya River. I imagine the St. Lawrence outflow rates to be more consistent due to volumetric considerations of the Great Lakes. Every once in a while (drought), saltwater creeps up the Mississippi. Unless the St. Lawrence has the same problems, I’d like to see them get that water.

  4. Waukesha will likely get it, as they helped elect Gov. Walker. That’s my take, anyway. Like the others who’ve commented here, I’d rather see them denied unless a vast majority of the water will come back and in suitable shape to boost the Root River at Racine, a DNR egg collection site for salmon and trout.

  5. Although the linked editorial raises some good points, their fundamental argument is flawed. Calling for waiting for scientific determinations misses the point and applies the wrong litmus test; determining the amount of negative impact Waukesha will cause isn’t the correct criteria for the decision. Rather approval of their application should be based upon what positive impacts their water withdrawal will provide to the citizens of the great lakes watershed or the lakes themselves, which are likely none.

  6. A few months back I saw an article I believe in the Milwaukee Sentinel reporting that Waukesha was proposing to permit a silica sand processing facility in or near the city. The process requires a fair amount of water, and the sand is ultimately used for fracking.

    Is there any update on this? Would water from the diversion be used for this?

  7. Waukesha needs to stay out of Lake Michigan and look at the multitude of other options it has for additional water sources. Hopefully the Great Lakes Governors oppose their application, no matter the content. The fact that disrupted/destroyed the hydrology in their region preventing their groundwater sources from replenishing as well as overconsumed doesn’t entitle them to Lake Michigan water. The have available water in the multitude of lakes to the NW including Pewaukee, as well as the Fox River and it’s tributaries, where they are currently diverting their rainwater rather than allowing it to replenish groundwater supplies.

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