Great Lakes Diversion Approved -Now We Bird Dog It

Yesterday in Chicago, the first Great Lakes diversion application under the Great Lakes Compact (Compact) was approved, with conditions.  This is a sound decision.

Say what?

Didn’t almost everyone oppose this? Including National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and virtually every environmental and conservation group across the Great Lakes?

Yes, NWF opposed this diversion…as submitted.  Check out our reason why we opposed this proposal as submitted here.

“As submitted” is an important nuance to highlight, because after it was submitted, the proposal was changed by the Great Lakes governors and Canadian premiers.  These changes (or conditions added) brought the proposal closer in line with the Compact standards.

Others, including the Joyce Foundation, share this view.  Take a look here.

Compact Council vote 6 2016

Great Lakes states vote on final Great Lakes diversion proposal from the city of Waukesha

Here is my take on this historic moment:

First, its important to remember that the Great Lakes Compact was developed to prohibit diversions of Great Lakes water and promote the wise use of our water resources inside the Basin.  NWF and countless groups across the Basin helped negotiate and advocate for the adoption of this agreement.  The Compact manages Great Lakes water in a protective, yet fair and sustainable way.  Upon adoption in 2008, NWF and almost every conservation group in the Great Lakes Basin heralded this as a success.

While creating a ban on diversions, the Compact also allows very limited exceptions to this ban.  These exceptions are limited and narrow for communities and counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin.  If a community meets this definition, then they can apply.  Furthermore, a community must meet a set of criteria called the ‘exception standard’ in order to be approved by all eight Great Lakes governors.  The exception standard requires a community to: demonstrate a need for water; conduct a reasonable water supply alternative analysis, and return the water (less consumptive use) among others.

Here is why I feel the Waukesha diversion approved with conditions is a sound decision for the Great Lakes.

First, the Great Lakes governors and Canadian premiers agreed with us that as submitted, the Waukesha diversion application failed to meet the standards in the Compact. Because they agreed that it failed to meet the standards, they added conditions that narrowed it down and brought the proposal closer in line with the Compact standards.

Here are some of the important conditions included:

  • Removed all towns and areas from the application that did not need water.
  • Reduced the volume of water requested down from 16 mgpd (max capacity) to 8.2 mgpd.
  • Strengthened the enforcement capability of any governor, or the Compact Council, to take actions necessary to compel compliance if Waukesha or WI DNR fail to carry out the conditions placed on the proposal. This includes the ability of any governor to request an audit and inspection of how this diversion is being managed and enforced.

Moreover, Waukesha will return close to 100% of the water diverted.  This is a key requirement of the Compact in order to get approved.

Its fair to say that the Great Lakes conservation community can take some credit and was instrumental in getting these conditions placed on the diversion.  Up until the last moment, groups involved were trying to influence the final outcome. As a result, and I do not mean to beat my chest here, but I certainly believe that the conservation community effectively drove the debate by raising the concerns with the proposal in a campaign blitz that ended up driving this process towards a better outcome.  Lets acknowledge that and feel good about our ability to influence and change the final outcome.

I feel the Great Lakes governors and premiers heard our and the public’s concerns and tried to address them.  It’s worth noting that some states and provinces were the clear intellectual thought leaders during this process.  While all states and provinces contributed to the final outcome, I want to extend sincere appreciation to Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Ontario.  Their thoughtful and serious review show that the Compact worked.

What precedent is being set here?  Well, the way I see this is that this decision will set a very difficult path for the next diversion applicant.

Why?  Consider that Waukesha spent close to $7 million alone in technical consulting fees.  On top of that, they will spend approximately over $200 million to upgrade their infrastructure to accommodate the diversion. That’s right…$200 million.  We are talking wastewater treatment upgrades, water storage upgrades, infrastructure to hook up their supply, and infrastructure to return the treated wastewater back to the Great Lakes.  Oh, by the way, given the process the Compact created, Waukesha had to go through the ringer of a years long difficult state review process…and a regional review process that created a sense of uncertainly as other governors and premiers changed this proposal – leaving Waukesha to sit there and watch this unfold.  Talk about a tense and stressful process!  I don’t know about you, but this should create a barrier for any future community looking at a diversion.  Who would want to go through this?  Given this huge price tag, is it economically feasible to even begin to think about applying for a diversion? A community must have a very serious and desperate situation in order to choose to go through what Waukesha just went through.  Alas – the Compact created this difficult path to get a diversion approved.

While not perfect (what is?) approving this diversion with conditions is a sound decision that upholds the Compact’s intent and spirit.  Many groups and individuals may not be happy with this outcome, but the pragmatic side of me feels strong and confident that this decision will set a very difficult path for the next diversion applicant.

What now?  Well, we need to review the public participation process for the next diversion application (lets hope there isn’t one).  Remember that this was the first application for a diversion under the Compact.  The process wasn’t perfect and it was bumpy at times.  Given this, there is agreement from some states and provinces that changes are in order to refine and improve this process in the future.  We intend to work with the states and provinces to that end.

Lastly, questions remain over the ability of Waukesha and WIDNR to manage and enforce these conditions.  Given this, we will be watching.  And, we expect the governors to be watching.  We are going to bird dog this thing and we reserve the right to take actions necessary to ensure that Waukesha and WIDNR do what they are required to do.

Statement from NWF and the Alliance for the Great Lakes...

Alliance for the Great Lakes – National Wildlife Federation
June 21, 2016
Jennifer Caddick, Alliance for the Great Lakes, (315) 767-2802
Marc Smith, National Wildlife Federation, (734) 255-5413
States Approve Request to Divert Great Lakes Water
(Chicago) This afternoon the eight Great Lakes states voted to approve Waukesha, Wisconsin’s diversion request. We believe that the conditions adopted by the Compact Council improved Waukesha’s proposal’s compliance with the Great Lakes Compact. We applaud the Great Lakes Governors for agreeing with us that the Waukesha diversion application as submitted failed to meet the standards of the Great Lakes Compact.
While we need to review the details of the final decision, we are encouraged by the additional conditions placed on Waukesha’s diversion application that improved the request. It is also important to note that the water diverted from Lake Michigan to Waukesha will be returned to the Great Lakes basin, resulting in no net loss of water to the lakes as required by the Compact.
We appreciate the seriousness with which members of the Great Lakes Regional Body and Compact Council undertook their responsibility to review Waukesha’s diversion application. While we have always believed that Waukesha has a reasonable water supply alternative, we understand that the Regional Body and Compact Council saw that issue differently.
Today’s vote is not the end of the story. Great Lakes advocates will need to be vigilant in making sure that the city of Waukesha and the State of Wisconsin honor the terms of the agreement. We will be strong watchdogs to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected. We expect that the Compact Council and its members will act promptly if Waukesha and Wisconsin do not meet every requirement imposed by the Council. And, if necessary, we will take action to compel compliance with the Compact Council’s requirements.
Moving forward, we strongly encourage the Regional Body and Compact Council to amend their processes to include improved opportunities for the public to participate in a meaningful and timely way throughout the regional review process no matter where they live.




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2 Responses to Great Lakes Diversion Approved -Now We Bird Dog It

  1. Joel B. says:

    Marc – well said here. You are quite right that it is easy for forget what a stinker Waukesha’s original application was, and what a dangerous precedent would have been set if it was approved. You, and the enviro community, rightly deserve a lot of credit for that application not going anywhere.

  2. Pingback: 2016 in Review | Great Lakes Outdoors

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