Conserving Great Lakes water should not be a matter of convenience

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Commentary

It’s rare when a Great Lakes topic deeply-rooted in policy and the law gets traction with the general public.

We rely on the policy-wonks, lawyers, watchdogs and legislators to do that work and hopefully get it right. Many legislators prefer it that way. That’s how special-interest loopholes make it into laws. They wouldn’t be there if written in simple terms.

But there are exceptions and Waukesha’s request to divert Lake Michigan water to that Wisconsin city is one.

We are very territorial when it comes to keeping Great Lakes water in the region. A mention of “diverting water” raises eyebrows and begs questions. It’s ours, hands off! Where is the water going? Why?

Waukesha needs to find another source of water because its wells are contaminated with radium. It wants 10 million gallons per day – a pittance –from Lake Michigan but since it’s outside the Great Lakes basin it needs approval from all of the states in the region.

The issue is less about the quantity of water than setting a precedent under the Great Lakes Compact. That means Waukesha must jump through hoops to have even a chance at Lake Michigan water.

But do we care about diversions and frivolous consumption as much as we profess?

I think not.

There’s precious little public concern that Chicago takes two billion gallons from Lake Michigan every day and it isn’t returned. It ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. Waukesha will have to return the water it takes to Lake Michigan if it’s to have a chance of getting it.

Or what about bottled water operations in places like Mecosta, Mich?

Nestle takes a few hundred thousand gallons of groundwater per day to put in plastic bottles  then sells what is an essentially unnecessary product – bottled water – back to its original owners, the public.

chicagoviewOther than the locals, no one including big Great Lakes environmental groups gives a hoot about Nestle’s operation. They even blessed a one-industry – bottled water – exception to the diversion clause in the Compact. And that’s supposed to be a landmark, precedent-setting document for the ages.

Now comes fracking

At last week’s Great Lakes conference one of my favorite things to do was chat with folks between and after sessions. People are more candid one-on-one speaking on background than when standing at a podium in front of a group of peers. They aren’t bound by obligatory collaborative language and prohibitions on speaking to the media.

A couple of those conversations revealed something interesting.

Two veteran Great Lakes experts in separate conversations mentioned the elephant in the room – the groundwater taken by fracking.

The essence of the conversations was that everyone here is putting Waukesha under a microscope, but fracking is receiving only a minor mention. Proposed fracking in Michigan will take four billion gallons of groundwater and return none of it. It’ll be gone. That’s the quantity of water Traverse City uses in two years.

Michigan is currently studying the impacts of fracking.

One of my hallway chat partners frankly said it’s hard to get excited about Waukesha’s request given the lack of concern about the fracking water draw down.

Was my candid policy friend right? Should we take the heat off Waukesha?

No, because the decision will set precedent perhaps similar to the bottled water provision in the Compact setting a diversion precedent.

But he was right to raise the question.

I’ve long said that there is a technical case to deny Waukesha’s request. It’s asking for more water than it needs to support growth and sprawl at the expense of Milwaukee. The Compact doesn’t allow for that. If it drops its contrived concept of a service area and asks for the quantity it needs – not wants – its request should be approved.

The Waukesha diversion process has been instructive for how we value water.

Do we really cherish all the Great Lakes water in the region including groundwater? That’s what we say. Or only when there’s an issue near us?

The citizens of Mecosta went it alone against Nestle. Fracking in Michigan has been focused in sparsely populated areas of Northern Michigan like Kalkaska where concern is high by local grassroots groups. However the activism doesn’t spread far.

What will happen when fracking operations move south to more populated areas? Will we care more then?

We talk a lot in the Great Lakes region about the lakes and our water abundance being a “national treasure” and it’s a “sacred imperative” to protect them for generations and millennia to come.

But do our deeds match the rhetoric?

Sometimes — especially when the issue is in our backyard. But our concern diminishes with distance. It’s a what happens there doesn’t affect me mentality.

We can do better than that.

If Waukesha’s requirements are put under a microscope, shouldn’t those of the fracking industry be heavily scrutinized also? Why should Nestle get a pass when a city a few miles outside the basin is grilled about every detail of its water operation?

If water in Mecosta or Kalkaska can be threatened, ours can be too.

Until we recognize that disconnect let’s drop the piety about our water being a “national treasure” and conserving it a “sacred imperative.”

There are too many convenient exceptions to that mantra.

Our rhetoric doesn’t match our actions.

Conserving Great Lakes water shouldn’t be a matter of convenience.

  • Cameron

    With its abundance of water, and the ready replenishment of it through rain and snow, Michigan continues to attract water-reliant industries that are the foundation of the state’s economy. It’s one of the reasons Nestle Waters North America chose to invest in new operations in Michigan. Clean, safe, fresh water is vital to our commitment to provide consumers throughout the Midwest with great tasting, portable and convenient bottled water products. We responsibly monitor our water use and its affects, managing water resources and surrounding wildlife for long-term sustainability.

    To answer Mr. Wilsons question, we believe most people and industries care deeply about assuring the waters we value for their beauty, recreation, enjoyment, use and refreshment remain healthy. For Nestle Waters, healthy water resources are vital to the success of our business, and it’s how we do business. We are not alone in this – many great Michigan companies and industries that use water and are located in the state share these same values.

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  • Mark

    Gary,

    Great commentary. I’ve been dismayed by the lack of media attention dealing with the “real” issues of vanishing water. I daresay that most folks here in Michigan have no idea of what fracking is. There is a very manipulated abuse of this resource quietly going on in the wings and money is behind it.

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  • Tom

    Gary, The so called environmentalist in West Michigan have evolved over time to flip-flop all over the issues to even support the tea party Senator Geoff Hansen and his anti-environmental right-wing political cohorts. Just follow where the grant monies go.

  • Gary

    Thanks Sconnie for your comments.

    The transit and social issues that literally and figuratively divide Milwaukee and Waukesha related to Waukesha’s water request have been discussed and written about in the Journal Sentinel and elsewhere for years.

    I just spent four days in Milwaukee where I talked to officials who have declined to engage on the Waukesha diversion issue because of the
    underlying and divisive social issues.

    And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Waukesha elected to pay a premium to another city for a water supply to avoid collaborating with Milwaukee.

    Gary Wilson

  • Sconnie

    The service area is not contrived and is not Waukesha’s plan. It’s WI planning law, which requires that the supply area be the same as the wastewater service area, which has existed for decades. Is your proposal to deny sewer service to existing residents or to send out-of-basin water from them to the Great Lakes? And the idea that it is about sprawl is just unsupported rhetoric. This is a developed area, not sprawl. Only 15percent of the area is developable and that is almost completely residential, not industrial or commercial. Population growth would be o.5 percent per year. And where is your evidence of any detrimental impact on Milwaukee? The issue should be about public health and preventing harm to the groundwater you talked about, not about attempts to fuel regional animosities.

  • David

    The precedent point is a strong one. It could open the flood gates.