News Story

Vote Sends Lake Michigan Water Outside the Great Lakes Basin

Intergovernmental group gives OK for Waukesha to draw from Lake Michigan

An agreement approved Tuesday by a multi-state governmental body known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council will allow the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin to draw millions of gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha, a city of 70,000 located 20 miles west of Milwaukee, lies in the Mississippi River Basin, just outside the Great Lakes Basin. Gov. Rick Snyder sent a representative to vote in favor of the unprecedented plan at a hearing in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. A veto by any state in the Council would have derailed Waukesha’s plan.

Great Lakes Basin

The plan’s approval comes after a 13-year effort that was often contentious. Critics say tapping into the region’s most crucial natural resource from outside the Great Lakes Basin could create a dangerous precedent for other water-lacking municipalities to take advantage.

The Council, which is comprised of Great Lakes states and provinces, was established by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. Michigan entered the agreement when the Legislature passed and Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed Public Act 184 in 2008, a measure which also required the state adopt a complex groundwater withdrawal regulatory regime. Michigan is the only state that lies fully within the Great Lakes basin, which gives it a unique interest in this area.

The Compact prohibits water diversions to or from the Great Lakes Basin, but Waukesha’s plan has been given an exception because it borders the basin. Defenders of the plan say that California, Arizona or other far-off locations are still prohibited from tapping Great Lakes water.

Waukesha currently draws from an aquifer deep underground, but its water level has been depleted so much that naturally occurring radium levels have spiked and tainted the tap water. The water is then treated and diverted to the Mississippi River Basin. The city plans to use a $200 million pipeline to tap 8 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan.

Snyder said Waukesha is already drawing 1.6 million gallons a day from the Great Lakes Basin since Lake Michigan is the source of its aquifer.

“Right now, there’s essentially a diversion of water that has human safety issues and environmental concerns with it, and that’s not a good thing,” Snyder told The Detroit News. He called the Waukesha plan "a way to discontinue [the diversion] and then the new source will have to be replaced back into the Great Lakes Basin after being appropriately treated. That, to me, is a better answer than what we have today.”

In addition to treating any water returned to Lake Michigan, Waukesha must document and annually report the amount of water it draws. Any member of the Council can audit Waukesha’s records and withdraw from the agreement if violated.

“There are a lot of emotions and politics surrounding this issue but voting yes — in cooperation with our Great Lakes neighbors — is the best way to conserve one of our greatest natural resources,” the governor said in a statement. “Mandating strict conditions for withdrawing and returning the water sets a strong precedent for protecting the Great Lakes.”

Snyder’s support for the plan to provide the city with access to clean water comes in the wake of Flint’s continuing water crisis.

“Waukesha obviously has a concern with radium, and this is a way to take care of that issue, because it’s not only a challenge for Waukesha, but having the radium in the general environment isn’t good for any of us,” Snyder said, according to The Detroit News.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) and Candice Miller (R-Harrison Twp.), two of the most vocal critics of the plan, argued that Waukesha doesn’t meet the requirements of the Compact.

“Waukesha has known about elevated radium levels in their water supply for decades and has failed to act,” they said in a joint statement. “Now, taking the easy way out, they are asking to siphon water from Lake Michigan. The fact is, they do not meet the criteria required to divert water from the Great Lakes and have not exhausted all alternatives as required by the Compact.”

Dingell and Miller noted that a study by the Wisconsin Compact Implementation Coalition found that Waukesha can treat its wells for radium, which surrounding communities do safely. They also questioned the Council's ability to monitor the planned withdrawal and return of the water.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette joined ranks with Dingell and Miller in criticizing the agreement for contradicting the purpose of the Compact.

“I was disappointed to learn that the Governors of the Great Lakes will allow water to be diverted outside of our watershed to be used by municipalities outside the Great Lakes basin,” he said in a statement. “The Great Lakes Compact was specifically designed to prevent the diversion of water from the Great Lakes and approving this application is setting a bad precedent.”

Last month, Michigan’s Senate adopted a resolution opposing the water diversion plan. Environmental groups also opposed it.

“Unlike the dozens of other Wisconsin communities that invested in radium treatment and other reasonable solutions, Waukesha chose to look to the Great Lakes, one of our region’s most precious and fragile freshwater resources, to bail it out,” Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney for the Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates wrote in February.

Waukesha’s Mayor Shawn Reilly praised the plan's approval.

“The regional commitment to implementing the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact is also a victory for protecting this tremendous resource,” he said, according to the Detroit News.