Great Lakes History in the Making:

Our take on Waukesha

By: Elizabeth Cisar, Senior Environment Program Officer

This week, the Governors of the Great Lakes states decided that Waukesha, Wisconsin can divert water from Lake Michigan for its public water system. Representatives of the Governors serve as the Great Lakes Compact Council, a body created in 2008 under state and federal law to protect and manage the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Compact Council during deliberations. (6/21/16)

Since 2005, Waukesha has been seeking approval of a request to use water from Lake Michigan because the city had radium in its groundwater. Waukesha sought Lake Michigan water to avoid costly treatment and support future growth. Waukesha’s pumping of lots of water from a deep aquifer is also pulling water from the Lake Michigan basin and could have harmed inland lakes. On the flipside, Waukesha’s use of Lake Michigan water would mean returning treated wastewater to Lake Michigan through the Root River, impacting that river, communities along it, and Lake Michigan.

Many of us in the Great Lakes region have serious concerns about any diversion. The Compact requires that no reasonable alternative exist before a diversion be granted. Today, the Great Lakes states concluded a six-year process that weighed those concerns.

The debate about the application was intense and comprehensive and ultimately, the Great Lakes Compact Council approved Waukesha’s request, with conditions that set a high bar for future applications and protect the Great Lakes. This was a sound decision. Any suggestion that this decision says, “Heck yeah, come stick a straw in our Lakes!” is just wrong. Credit for this decision goes to the leaders of our states and provinces, our fellow citizens who voiced concerns, and the technical experts who dug into Waukesha’s request and took on tough questions about its impacts on people and places.

But we’re not done yet! Waukesha was the first community to ask for water and we learned a lot. We need to improve the process for evaluating future requests. Right now, the rules require just one official public hearing in the state requesting the water. Kudos to Michigan and Minnesota for hosting their own hearings, but nothing requires them to do so in the future. Citizens in Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Quebec, and Ontario had to travel or settle for submitting comments by mail or online. That’s not an equitable way to make sure everyone who cares about our Great Lakes can voice concerns about future diversions.

Even more important, we’ve got to make room for public comment and review once the real negotiating begins. After the public comment period closes, the process calls for representatives of all the states and provinces to meet and see if they agree on the scientific and legal qualifications of a request. We saw some Grade A work this time from Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Ontario on the science and the law. Ohio skillfully chaired those discussions and the process. But, the public didn’t have a meaningful opportunity to review this work and comment on it. And, the work was substantial — without the conditions established during these deliberations, the application would not comply with the Compact. Limitations of the volume of the diversion and the area it will serve send a clear message that Great Lakes water cannot be used to support sprawling growth. Strong standards for cleaning up water being returned will protect communities on the Root River and Lake Michigan. And, serious monitoring and enforcement provisions ensure that Wisconsin must comply with the conditions. This time, the process ended in a good place, but we’ve got to find a way that allows the public an opportunity to comment on deliberations in the future.

There was intense pressure on the participating states to work fast — to review and respond to technical information with very little time for consultation with their experts and their leadership. At times it felt like the process put a thumb on the scale for approval. That we cannot have. We need a review process that isn’t endless and still provides for public comment on the deliberations. It won’t be easy, and will likely extend the review period and increase costs, but protecting the Great Lakes is worth it.

Image: Shutterstock

I and my colleagues at the Joyce Foundation look forward to a robust discussion about how we can work together to make that happen.