Questions Still Remain over Proposed Great Lakes Diversion


credit AP

Welcome to Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Located just west of Milwaukee and Lake Michigan, Waukesha was once known for its extremely clean and good-tasting spring water and was even called a ‘spa town.’  This earned the city the nicknames, ‘Spring City,’ and ‘Saratoga of the West.’

Fast forward to the present.  Now the natural springs are all but dried up.  Continual withdrawals from the deep aquifers over the years have exposed the water supply to radium, a naturally occurring toxin.  Now, the city is under a court order to comply with a 2018 stipulation to supply radium-free water.

Once a proud spa town – boasting its fresh and clean water – is now more known for its crusade to divert Lake Michigan water.  After many years of back and forth with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the city submitted ‘new’ information this past October that still claims its best solution to solve its water problems is to divert Lake Michigan water.

Some conservation organizations continue to have questions over this proposal. 

In a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR), National Wildlife Federation and conservation organizations from across the Great Lakes Basin continue to raise questions over whether a Wisconsin community needs to divert water from the Great Lakes to meet its water needs.  In October of 2013, the City of Waukesha submitted new information to the WI DNR in its efforts to apply for a diversion of Lake Michigan water.

See the letter here…GL Coalition Waukesha Comments 12-2013

The proposed Waukesha diversion application is the first since the Great Lakes Compact was adopted in 2008.  This application may be a flashpoint for the Compact, establishing its effectiveness and serving as a precedent for other subsequent diversion proposals.  However, even after Waukesha submitted additional information to WI DNR, many outstanding questions remain.  The letter raises questions on its demand forecast, feasible water supply alternatives, return flow, and the WI DNR’s requirement that Waukesha include other areas in Waukesha county in a ‘extended service area’ as part of its application.

The Compact is clear on what is expected of any diversion application. First, any diversion proposal must exhaust all options available and in essence be a last resort, and second, a clear need for water must exist. 

Even with the new information, questions still remain.

In a National Wildlife Federation report authored in February of 2013 by Jim Nicholas, a scientist and retired director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Michigan Water Science Center, Waukesha’s demand for water has been decreasing since the late 1980s.  However, in the current application, the city projects a much higher demand that is inconsistent with historical trends.  While the new information submitted by Waukesha reduces the overall demand, it still does not justify why it needs so much water.

After reviewing the new information submitted by Waukesha, Jim Nicolas reaffirms that the new information in the Waukesha application does not change his original findings in his February 2013 report.  See the memo here…Waukesha Jim Nicholas Memorandum 12-2013

Waukesha is eligible to apply for Great Lakes water because it lies within a county that straddles the Great Lakes and Mississippi River divide. 

The precedent-setting application must not only stand up to the scrutiny of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but must undergo regional review by the governors of the seven Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and the Canadian premiers of Ontario and Quebec. Applications for exceptions in straddling counties must also be approved by all eight of the governors.

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