Protecting the Future of the Great Lakes

You may have heard about Waukesha, Wisconsin’s application to divert water from Lake Michigan on NPR recently, and read about it in the New York Times. This is important to all Great Lakes communities because if Waukesha, a city of just over 71,000 that straddles the Great Lakes Basin, is allowed to divert water as they have proposed, then a terrible precedent will be set. The approval of Waukesha’s application as it stands will set the bar too low and endanger the Great Lakes, a diverse ecosystem and an important resource for drinking water and recreation for tens of millions.

As our climate changes and droughts become more frequent, people have become increasingly cognizant that the Great Lakes must be preserved and protected. The Great Lakes Compact was designed to do just that. Adopted in 2008, it effectively prohibits any new or increased withdrawals of water from a watershed of the Great Lakes Basin unless they meet the requirements of the exception standard, outlined in the compact.

The City of Waukesha is seeking a water diversion from Lake Michigan because the city is under federal order to address the elevated levels of naturally occurring radium in their current aquifers. However, Waukesha’s application does not meet minimum requirements outlined in the Great Lakes Compact such as:

  • Proving they have no other reasonable alternatives to Great Lakes water – Waukesha can meet the water demands of their city more affordably if they treated their current water supply for radium. This can be done using lime softening, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange.
  • Demonstrating their community actually needs the water – their application justifies the quantity of water they are requesting to divert from Lake Michigan by including communities just outside of Waukesha, and these communities have not expressed a need or a want of a new source of water.
  • Reducing water consumption through conservation measures prior to applying for a water diversion – Waukesha never implemented the necessary conservation measures required before applying for a water diversion, and they’ve only currently implemented a fraction of their water conservation plan – the rest of which they plan on implementing over 20 years. Also, the additional communities included in Waukesha’s application do not meet conservation requirements.
  • Ensuring all of the Great Lakes water used is returned to the Great Lakes without doing harm to other waters – Waukesha’s current plan is to return water to the Root River, which will cause additional phosphorus pollution and possible flooding, and mix with the Mississippi River.

If Waukesha’s application is approved as-is, it spells bad news for the future of the Great Lakes, which are suffering a variety of impacts from climate change, invasive species and pollution from plastic microbeads. This is why Environmental Advocates, along with many others, have signed on to a comment letter (which you can view here) that has been submitted to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) outlining our concerns with Waukesha’s application, notably that the application fails to meet the requirements of the Compact and cannot be supported in current form.

After Wisconsin’s DNR reviews the comments, they will issue a Final Technical Review and Final Environmental Impact statement with a 30 day comment period.

If Wisconsin’s DNR approves everything for Waukesha’s application, it will then go to the Governors, or their selected alternatives, of each of the Great Lakes states and provinces for approval. The application must be approved by every state before it can go forward. Consequently, any state has the power to veto the application or request changes. Should there be no changes between Waukesha’s application as it stands and when it comes to New York for approval, we will be counting on Governor Cuomo to be a strong voice and a leader in calling for the application to comply with the Compact, or if necessary, to veto the application in its entirety.

The Great Lakes contain approximately one-fifth of the earth’s total fresh water, and 84 percent North America’s fresh water. That’s why we have a duty to protect it by following such initiatives as the Great Lakes Compact to a T.