Representatives of all eight Great Lakes states’ governors meeting in Chicago Tuesday unanimously approved a request to pump Lake Michigan water just outside the Great Lakes watershed to Waukesha, Wis.

Some environmental and Great Lakes advocacy groups had opposed the diversion request for fear it would set a dangerous precedent for further diversions. But supporters said Waukesha is so close to the lake - just 17 miles - that the diversion should be allowed.

The approval is for less water than Waukesha originally asked for - no more than an average of 8.2 million gallons a day, compared to the originally requested 10.1 million gallons. And Waukesha will be able to use the water in a smaller service area than first requested - essentially covering the existing city and not areas of future growth.

All of the water will be returned to Lake Michigan, after being treated in the city's sewage treatment plant, through the nearby Root River. The final version approved Tuesday also appears to include additional monitoring of that returned water and higher water quality standards.

The decision comes under authority of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact approved in 2008 by all the regional states and provinces and ratified by Congress.

The compact bans large or distant diversions. And it demands that any eligible diversion must receive the unanimous support of governors of all Great Lakes states - Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec also get a say.

The compact leaves the door open, just a crack, for communities on the outside edge of the Great Lakes watershed to at least ask. Waukesha was the first to ask and is the first major test of the compact.

“This final version appears to meet that high bar we think was set by the Great Lakes Compact” for any diversions out of the lake, Jennifer Caddack, spokeswoman of the Great Lakes Alliance, told the News Tribune. “We still need to do a thorough legal analysis, really look into the weeds. But it appears to be a significantly improved document over the original application.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton also agreed the final version was improved over Waukesha’s original applications, thanks to input by state resource managers and the public.

“Those additional efforts, the counsel of our state’s experts, and several important modifications to the previous proposal, have assured me that approving the diversion project will provide environmental benefits to the region, and have virtually no impact on our treasured Great Lakes,” Dayton said in a statement. “Therefore, I have voted to approve the project.”

Dayton, who said he was leaning against the diversion until additional protections were added at the 11th hour, said strong language was placed into the proposal affirming the authority of the Great Lakes Compact Council and the individual member states to enforce the conditions of the project, such as ongoing monitoring and compliance.

Because Waukesha County is on the Lake Michigan watershed line, the compact rules allowed 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.

Officials in the Wisconsin city of about 70,000 people just west of Milwaukee, technically in the Mississippi River watershed, applied for the diversion in January after years of engineering plans. They’ve argued that 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.

“This is great news for the people who live and work in the Waukesha community,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said in a statement. “The application went through a rigorous 5-year review process, and we appreciate all the work our neighboring Great Lakes States and Provinces did to make the city of Waukesha’s application stronger.”

Environmental and Great Lakes advocacy groups - including many regional mayors as members of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative - had rallied against the Waukesha plan, saying lowering the diversion bar to give Waukesha access to Lake Michigan water would set a precedent triggering additional requests by communities or industries just outside the Great Lakes watershed.

“Today’s vote is not the end of the story. Great Lakes advocates will need to be vigilant in making sure that the city of Waukesha and the state of Wisconsin honor the terms of the agreement,” Caddick said in a statement. “We will be strong watchdogs to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected.”

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