Wisconsin town's request for Lake Michigan water one of first big tests of new Great Lakes compact

For years, the Wisconsin city of Waukesha has had a water problem: High levels of radium in the town’s supply of drinking water, and a federal requirement that it find a new water source by 2018. Its proposed solution to this local problem will require support from the entire Great Lakes region.

In an application formally submitted this fall to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Waukesha proposes withdrawing an average of 10.1 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan. The town, a western suburb of Milwaukee, lies entirely outside the Great Lakes basin.

“It will be a significant test and challenge for the [Great Lakes] compact,” David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, told the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus this summer about the decision-making process likely to unfold in 2014.great lakes diversions

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Compact became law five years ago — after passage by all eight Great Lakes states and subsequent federal approval. (There is also a companion agreement in place with the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.)

Concerns about water diversions were a big part of the push for a new interstate compact. A few years before the compact was written, for example, the province of Ontario had approved a permit (later denied) to send bulk containers of Lake Superior water to Asia.

“The compact has, once and for all, closed the door on long-distance, large-scale diversions,” Naftzger said. (As the accompanying table shows, interbasin diversions already occur in the Great Lakes.)

But the door has been left open for towns such as Waukesha to use the Great Lakes for its public water supply. The city fits one of the exceptions to the compact’s ban on new diversions— namely, that it is a community within a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin.

The newly established compact establishes criteria that Waukesha, and other towns like it, must meet in order to have plans approved. For example, the city must show that it has no reasonable alternative to tapping into Great Lakes water, must return any unused water to the basin, and must have water-conservation plans in place.

The first step for Waukesha is to have the Wisconsin DNR decide that its proposal is “approvable.” That decision will likely occur during the first half of 2014. The proposal is then sent on for consideration by the entire region, a process that Naftzger said will take about six months. The eight Great Lakes states and the two Canadian provinces will then take part in a “declaration of finding” process in which they decide whether Waukesha’s application is consistent with language in the Great Lakes regional agreement.

The next step is a vote by the region’s eight governors. A single “no” vote would derail the project.

Waukesha officials say their diversion plan meets all of the compact’s criteria, from the strength of its water-efficiency programs (daytime sprinkling bans, for example, and a water-conservation rate structure) to its pledge to return “no less than 100 percent of the water withdrawn from the Great Lakes.”

Whether the plan withstands regional scrutiny remains to be seen. But what occurs over the next year will set an important precedent, both for states in the compact and for towns that may be eyeing new diversions of Great Lakes water due to factors such as population growth, poor water quality and limited water capacity.

A September 2013 report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes identifies communities in Wisconsin (Pewaukee, Sussex and Muskego), Indiana (Lowell, St. John, Valparaiso and Fort Wayne) and Ohio (Wadsworth) that may seek diversions of Great Lakes water in the coming years.

Stateline Midwest ~ December 20131.76 MB