The Great Lakes will not be harmed by Waukesha’s application to use and return Lake Michigan water under the terms of the Great Lakes Compact. And Waukesha will not set any precedent for harm by others.
Waukesha is 1.5 miles outside of the surface divide of the Great Lakes basin. Under the compact, the city needs the permission of the eight governors of the Great Lakes states, with various Canadian provinces also having a say, to use Lake Michigan water.
Waukesha is proposing to withdraw far less than 1 percent of the Great Lakes’ water. Then, following use and treatment, it will return the same amount back to the lakes. In other words, there will be no harm to the Great Lakes.
Moreover, water for Waukesha will not set a precedent for harmful diversions of water to California or other far-away places. The question of where to draw the line on use of Great Lakes water was settled in 2008 with the adoption of the compact – an agreement among states and provinces that was enacted into federal law. The agreement prevents water from being pumped to areas beyond the surface divide of the Great Lakes.
The compact does, however, allow water to be pumped to communities in counties that straddle the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha is in a straddling county, so it can apply for Great Lakes water, but only if it returns the water to the lake after use and treatment. Only a handful of communities in the Great Lakes states are likely to ever apply for water. That legal use and return of water would set no precedent for illegal use beyond straddling counties.
The other primary requirement of the compact is that a community in a straddling county must have “no reasonable water supply alternative.” Opponents of our request for water claim that the compact says lake water must be a “last resort,” but that is not what the compact says. There is a big difference between no reasonable alternatives and no alternatives at all.
Despite our effective water conservation program, Waukesha needs a new water supply because our primary source of water has been drawn down hundreds of feet. Part of the trouble is a layer of shale rock in the area that restricts the amount of precipitation that can soak through the ground into the groundwater. The other source of trouble is the dense population in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, which places high demands on the aquifer.
The drawdown has led to an increase in the presence of naturally occurring contaminants, including radium, a carcinogen. Waukesha is under a court order to provide a water supply that meets radium standards.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has found that Waukesha, if it continues using groundwater in the current way, will unreasonably damage 700 to 2,300 acres of wetlands, as well as lakes, streams and aquifers. The DNR, following five years of review, has issued a draft opinion finding that Waukesha’s application meets the compact’s requirements. It is now reviewing public comments recently submitted in response to the release of an Environmental Impact Statement.
The purpose of the compact was to ensure that decisions concerning Great Lakes water are made in response to objective, scientific reviews, not politics. The drafters knew that laws that allow decisions to be founded on knee-jerk, political reactions would not hold up in court. For that reason, they established objective standards and fact-finding requirements. Attempts by some to influence decisions with misleading opinion pieces and social media campaigns threaten the very purpose of the compact.
Our city helped pass the compact in Wisconsin in order to protect the Great Lakes and help meet our own water-supply needs. The compact may also help a small number of Great Lakes communities that may some day face similar needs.
We are not a threat to the compact or to the Great Lakes. Approving our application would be an opportunity to show that the spirit of trust and cooperation that led to the compact can in fact be relied on.
For more information, see the Frequently Asked Questions at www.waukesha-water.com.
— Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly