By Shawn Reilly
Waukesha’s proposal to borrow and return Lake Michigan water has undergone an intensive review, demonstrating a regional commitment to uphold the legal requirements of the Great Lakes Compact.
Waukesha is grateful for the commitment and the many hours of detailed technical review that the Great Lakes states and provinces provided as they scrutinized our application. We are hopeful that the states, at their meeting scheduled for Tuesday, will provide the required votes to approve our proposal to obtain a safe and long-term supply of drinking water.
The Compact, a 2008 federal law, prohibits water from being pumped beyond the Great Lakes Basin surface divide except for municipalities, like Waukesha, that are in counties that straddle the divide.
To qualify for the exception, a community must show it has no reasonable alternative to Great Lakes water and, most importantly, must recycle the water back to the Great Lakes following use and treatment. In the case of Waukesha, we would use less than 1/1,000,000th of 1 percent of Great Lakes water, but return the same amount back to Lake Michigan.
We are applying for Lake Michigan water because of a geological feature that prevents our underground water supply from being recharged to the needed extent by rain and snow. The water is also contaminated by radium, a naturally occurring carcinogen.
Under the Great Lakes Compact, findings of fact about our application were developed by the Great Lakes Regional Body, which is made up of the Great Lakes states, as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Although a final vote by the states must still be taken, the group’s findings, which can be seen at www.waukeshadiversion.org, concluded that Waukesha meets the Compact’s strict requirements:
• “(N)one of the evaluated alternatives were found to be reliable sources for a long-term, dependable, and sustainable public water supply and, therefore, the Applicant is without a reasonable water supply alternative” to Lake Michigan water.
• “(A)pproximately 100 percent of the volume withdrawn from the Basin will be returned via flow through the Root River, a tributary of the [Great Lakes] Basin.”
• Waukesha’s high quality “return flow will benefit a Basin tributary, the Root River. … Increased flow will result in an improvement of the fishery and benefits to the Basin salmonid egg collection facility located downstream on the Root River.”
Approving Waukesha’s application, when done in accordance with the Compact’s requirements, will in no way provide a precedent for water to go to faraway places like California or Arizona. Such states have no legal means of applying to get Great Lakes water. Unlike in Waukesha’s case, the Compact contains no provisions that would allow consideration of such a proposal.
The Regional Body also deemed Waukesha’s circumstances to be highly unusual, a finding that makes it highly unlikely that any sort of broad precedent could be formed – even for other municipalities in counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin. One feature that makes Waukesha differ from many places is that our groundwater supply is connected to the Lake Michigan watershed. (We are only 1.5 miles outside the surface divide.)
Our current wells pull groundwater away from the Great Lakes Basin and into the Mississippi River Basin. It is not returned to the Great Lakes Basin. The Compact provides that substantive consideration must be given to this connection, as it results in an unintended diversion of Great Lakes water.
The Regional Body concluded that approving our application to use and return surface water “will result in a net increase of water in the Lake Michigan watershed.” Few other places could ever meet that precedent.
The Regional Body also recommended conditions to an approval of Waukesha’s application, including substantially limiting the area that can receive water and the amount of water we can withdraw. Annual reporting, monitoring of the Root River, enforcement provisions and other conditions were also recommended.
Approval of Waukesha’s application would be no threat to the Great Lakes. In fact, the commitment by states and provinces to a review built on science and the law – not politics, emotions or social media campaigns – shows that the critical protections provided by the Compact are working as intended.