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Friday, April 12, 2024
Waukesha is applying for an exemption to pull water from the Great Lakes basin, a move which has generated significant controversy.

Waukesha is applying for an exemption to pull water from the Great Lakes basin, a move which has generated significant controversy.

Waukesha’s water diversion proposal sparks debate

Until the Flint, Mich., water crisis, most Americans’ minds would likely jump to the dry Southwest when thinking about restricted access to drinking water.

However, despite the seemingly abundant supply of drinking water in the Great Lakes region, Midwestern states are suddenly paying more attention to their water supply and its cleanliness.

The City of Waukesha currently faces a water quality and quantity problem. According to Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization seeking to maintain high water quality in the region, some deep wells in the area contain high levels of naturally occurring radium.

Waukesha currently gets its water supply from a variety of shallow and deep wells in order to dilute radium levels from the deeper, radium-rich wells. The state Department of Natural Resources has mandated that Waukesha get its water quality levels back up to code by 2018.

To solve this problem, the city submitted an application in May of 2010 to start siphoning its water supply from the Great Lakes Basin. Waukesha proposed taking about 10.1 million gallons of water per day from the basin and processing most of the water back into the Great Lakes’ water system. This would cost about $200 million to achieve.

The proposal is significant because of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a federal law passed in 2008. The law sets regulations for how water from the Great Lakes Basin is distributed, and prohibits the diversion of water from the Great Lakes Basin except for communities within the Basin’s borders. However, counties that straddle the border can apply to divert water from the Great Lakes Basin.

Although Waukesha is not within the Basin’s borders, Waukesha County is within limits, causing debate about the credibility of the proposal.

The application is currently being reviewed by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council and various stakeholders held a meeting last week on the matter. If the council decides to accept the application, it will go to a larger council made up of governors and chief executives from throughout the Midwest. Their decision is expected to be announced by the end of April.

Waukesha is the first city not within the Great Lakes Basin borders to apply to divert water from the Great Lakes. This means that the ruling on this case could set a precedent for other communities across the country.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving and restoring the Great Lakes Region, reports there are at least eight other communities across Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio that, due to population growth, may not be able to maintain necessary water quantities with groundwater wells.

“The first diversion application will be a test of whether the compact’s existing rules, processes and language are solid enough to meet the regulatory and possible legal challenges it will face,” a recently released AGL report said.

Those in favor of the diversion argue that just because Waukesha would be diverting water from the Great Lakes, it does not mean other communities will automatically be able to as well. Each community will submit a proposal and go through the same process of examination so there is no threat of water being exported out of the region.

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Opposition to the diversion argues that if Waukesha’s proposal is accepted, it will be harder to deny water diversion as an option with even more communities vying for water supplies, making the Great Lakes an even more valuable resource.

AGL has come out in favor of a plan to decrease the amount of water that would be diverted to Waukesha.

“The fact that they are significantly limiting the additional areas that could be eligible for lake water is definitely the right move," said Molly Flanagan, a spokesperson for the AGL. "But we'll need to take a look at the details to fully understand whether we can support this piece."

Another point brought up by the opposition is that diversion from the Great Lakes is meant as a last resort after all water conservation efforts are exhausted. Some believe that the City of Waukesha could do a better job encouraging citizens to conserve water resources.

Waukesha has said the diversion is its last and only option.

“We do not have enough water for our citizens and the water we do have is contaminated," said Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly at an event earlier this month.

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