When the Great Lakes states organized a decade ago to craft an unprecedented plan to protect their water from thirsty outsiders, they made sure the rules made it difficult for anyone to tap into the lakes.
Still, when the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was approved in 2008, the signatories left the door open, just a crack, for communities on the outside edge of the Great Lakes watershed to at least ask.
Now, Waukesha is asking.
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 about 10 million gallons 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 compact rules 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.
Waukesha says it has exhausted all feasible options for safe drinking water, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in January agreed to advance the Lake Michigan diversion project to the next level.
Now, environmental groups across the Great Lakes region are working against the Waukesha diversion, not so much because of the amount of water but because of the precedent the diversion could set.
“People of the region are passionate about these lakes. Taking water out to send somewhere else just doesn’t sit well, even if the somewhere else is right next door,” said Peter Annin, author of the book “The Great Lakes Water Wars” and co-director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland.
The Waukesha diversion would have “barely a negligible impact on the water of Lake Michigan and certainly the Great Lakes. And because Waukesha has promised to return 100 percent of the water they take out, there really is no physical impact at all,” Annin said, noting the Waukesha debate has gained national and even international attention in a world increasingly divided between people with ample water and those with not enough.
“What makes this case so important is the precedent it sets for the integrity of the compact,” he said. “Legally, this is the first test case that’s going to show whether the compact works (to limit or block water diversions) and how well it works. ... Whether the compact is a legal water fence or not.”
The plan is out for public comment and, thanks to the compact, which serves as a binding treaty between the 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 is killed.
To give guidance to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, the Minnesota DNR is holding an informal listening session about the Waukesha proposal on Thursday in Duluth.
The Waukesha plan is expected to be decided by the governors, with input from the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, sometime this summer.
There have been diversion ideas for decades, schemes to pump Great Lakes water to Wyoming, the thirsty Great Plains or as far away as the desert Southwest.
As recently as the 1980s, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study pumping water from the Great Lakes to states that draw their water from the rapidly shrinking Ogallala underground aquifer - including Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. (The study said such a major diversion would be economically unfeasible.)
The Great Lakes compact was the direct result of a 1998 plan by an Ontario company called the Nova Group to export about 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water each year to Asia by ship.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment approved the proposal, but massive opposition from both sides of the border spurred the company to scrap the idea. Still, the scare of the Nova Group plan spurred regional momentum for a ban on diversions.
That effort culminated in the compact that was approved by all eight Great Lakes states, passed by Congress, signed into law by the president and approved by Ontario and Quebec. It was a rare display of bipartisan, cross-state-line, cross-international-line harmony.
Andrew Slade, Duluth-based northeast program coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said independent studies show that Waukesha could get ample water from local wells by adding new filtration technology that would be cheaper than building pipes to Lake Michigan.
“The compact clearly allows a community like Waukesha to apply for a diversion. But the bar for approving a diversion is set very high. It’s essentially allowed only as a last resort,” Slade noted. “In this case, the exception isn’t warranted. They appear to have other viable options.”
Environmental and Great Lakes advocacy groups say lowering the 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.
Whichever way the Great Lakes governors decide, Slade noted, “the sense you get is that this one is going to end up in the courts. Some interests want to test how well the compact can hold up.”
Annin agreed, saying both sides appear “loaded” and ready to fire lawsuits depending which way the governors go.
Slade said there’s also a more basic, parochial view about Great Lakes water. If people need water, the view holds, let them come to shoreline communities to use it instead of building homes or industry in unsustainable areas.
“We have this great competitive advantage with ample, clean water. So why should we export that for some other area’s gain?” Slade asked.
That’s one reason the Waukesha diversion is opposed even by its neighbor, Milwaukee.
“There’s a lot of local politics in this … a lot of resentment in Milwaukee, where people are saying, ‘If you want Lake Michigan water, move to Milwaukee,’” Annin said, noting that party politics is even playing a role. Waukesha is heavily Republican and Milwaukee is mostly Democratic.
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 - one of the requirements under the compact’s rules for diversions.
The city already has spent $72 million on sewage treatment upgrades and plans to spend $207 million on a network of pipes and pumps to divert lake water to Waukesha and return treated wastewater to the lake.
Waukesha officials note that the system would end up as virtually no-net-loss for Great Lakes water.
More than a dozen officials from the other seven Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces were in Waukesha earlier this month to learn more about the plan. Representatives from several states expressed concerns, including with part of the Waukesha plan that would provide water for areas outside the city that currently are served by other water sources. Waukesha officials say they are forced to do that under state law; opponents say that water sharing is prohibited by the compact.
The compact also requires conservation before diversion, and the Wisconsin DNR concluded that Waukesha could not meet its future water supply needs by decreasing demand through conservation efforts alone. The city is planning to cut water usage by 1 million gallons per day by 2050, but the city says that still isn’t enough through the current supply system.
Representatives of the eight states will gather again on April 21 to receive the final plan from the Wisconsin DNR. Or, Waukesha and the Wisconsin DNR could pull the plan back and ask for more time.
The compact allows the eight states to unanimously approve the plan, kill the plan with one or more no votes, or - a possible third option - approve it conditionally, sending it back for revisions.
Julie Ekman, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official representing Minnesota on the compact committee reviewing the Waukesha request, said it’s not clear which way the eight states will go.
Ekman said her job as the Minnesota representative is to judge the Waukesha project not for its local impacts but for how it complies with the rules set a decade ago by the signatories of the compact. She said Great Lakes states’ representatives are taking it seriously because none know whether they might be the next state asking for a diversion.
“We’re going to have that group discussion (all eight states) in April and we’ll see where it goes,” Ekman said. “Our job really is to make sure the project meets the criteria of the compact. But we’re not quite sure yet how that works because we’ve never done this before.”
If you go
What: Minnesota DNR public input “listening session” on the Waukesha, Wis., water diversion plan.
When: Thursday, with open house from 5-6 p.m. and DNR presentation at 6 p.m. with listening session to follow.
Where: Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in downtown Duluth, basement ballroom
More: For more information or to submit formal comments on the plan - the deadline to comment is March 14 - go to www.waukeshadiversion.org or email comments to email@example.com.
Great Lakes live up to their name
* Lake Superior contains 3 quadrillion gallons of water (3,000,000,000,000,000).
All five of the Great Lakes combined contain 6 quadrillion gallons. That’s 20 percent of all fresh surface water on Earth.
* The Great Lakes contain enough water to submerge the continental United States 10 feet deep.
* More than 35 million people - about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 32 percent of the Canadian population - rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, jobs and recreation.
* It’s estimated that 1 trillion gallons of water is removed daily from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system. But 95 percent of that is returned; only about 5 percent is consumed or lost.
* The biggest diversion out of the Great Lakes watershed currently is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which sends millions of gallons of Lake Michigan water daily toward the Mississippi River so Chicago’s sewage doesn’t pollute its own drinking water. But the Great Lakes get more water diverted in than out, thanks to the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions into Lake Superior from the Albany River system in northern Ontario that amount to 6 percent of all water in Lake Superior.