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Minnesota requests delay on Waukesha water decision

The review of a Wisconsin city's application to draw drinking water from Lake Michigan has been put on hold for at least a week.

Julie Ekman, Minnesota's representative on a multi-state committee reviewing the plan requested by the city of Waukesha, asked for the delay Wednesday. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Ekman said she and other Minnesota officials needed more time to review revisions made to the plan during meetings this week in Chicago.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported that Ekman also said Minnesota wants to look at Waukesha's plan to send treated wastewater down the Root River through Racine, and whether enforcement and accountability on the diversion project can be strengthened.

The group's vote on whether to recommend approval of the plan was rescheduled to next Wednesday, the Journal Sentinel reported. The results of that vote will be shared with the Great Lakes governors, who will vote on the plan in June.

Officials in the Wisconsin city of about 70,000 people just west of Milwaukee say their well water is too polluted with toxic radium to be safe and that they need to tap into Lake Michigan.

Concentrations of radium and salts in water from the city's deep wells are increasing as water levels in the sandstone aquifer drop lower, officials say, and the city is under court order to reduce radium levels to federal safe drinking water standards by June 2018.

Waukesha wants to draw several million gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan. The city sits only about 17 miles west of the lake but, by a quirk of topography, Waukesha sits in the Mississippi River watershed.

Because Waukesha County is on the Lake Michigan watershed line, however, the rules of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact — approved in 2008 — allow the city to apply to use Great Lakes water. Beyond those borderline counties, the compact prohibits large-scale export of Great Lakes water under any circumstances, unless the water is an ingredient of another product such as beer or soda, or in small containers.

Under the Waukesha plan, the water would be pumped from the lake in Oak Creek, Wis., piped to Waukesha, used, treated in an upgraded city sewage system and then pumped into the nearby Root River that flows back east into Lake Michigan

Thanks to the compact, which serves as a binding treaty between the Great Lakes states, the Waukesha diversion needs the approval of all signatories of the compact. That means Waukesha needs the support of not just the governor of Wisconsin but also Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. If one governor says no, the diversion plan is killed.

Earlier this week, the group meeting in Chicago — which also includes the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec — reached preliminary agreement to remove portions of adjoining communities from Waukesha's planned area to be served with Lake Michigan water.

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly has been in Chicago this week to observe the discussion. Though his city's planned future water service area has been steadily trimmed during the regional review, Reilly said he accepted the approach of Great Lakes officials. His primary goal has been "getting a new water supply for the city," Reilly said.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin Public Radio contributed to this report.