Thursday, January 26th, 2023
Thursday, January 26th, 2023

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Great Lakes Compact to be tested by Wisconsin town

Madison, Wis. — Authors of the 2008 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, aka, the Great Lakes Compact, likely had bigger fish in mind when they set out to protect the Great Lakes from the consequences of water diversion.

But the first true test of the compact between eight states and two Canadian provinces likely will come from a Wisconsin town of 71,000 possibly best known for native son Les Paul, the inventor of the electric guitar.

The Wisconsin DNR announced recently that the city of Waukesha’s application (submitted in 2010) to divert water from Lake Michigan for municipal needs “appears to meet key technical requirements,” according to a draft technical review by that agency.

At the same time, the Wisconsin DNR announced public hearings that will take place Aug. 17 and Aug. 18, and a public comment period that continues through Aug. 28. Wisconsin’s final environmental impact statement and technical review will wrap up later this year, and the department will determine then if Waukesha’s application “is approvable under the Great Lakes Compact,” in which case it would be forwarded to the Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec for consideration.

Some conservation groups already fear that allowing Great Lakes water diversion to that city could open a spigot to other such diversions. 

In a press release from the National Wildlife Federation, the group questions if the diversion is warranted: “The compact generally bans the diversion of Great Lakes water, with some narrow exceptions. Conservation groups are raising significant questions about whether the city actually needs to divert Great Lakes water.”

Drought in parts of the nation (think California, Arizona, and others) and statements from elected officials regarding the use of Great Lakes waters to quell those droughts prompted action by Great Lakes states to protect the waters of the lakes that hold more than 20 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water. 

Eventually, governors from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania signed onto the pact. Congress approved the measure, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. The “threat,” as it was perceived, from the South and West was at least mostly stifled.

But there were exceptions in the compact, one of which involves communities in “straddling counties,” including the city of Waukesha. According to the Wisconsin DNR, “The process allows communities located outside the Great Lakes Basin, but within counties that straddle the Great Lakes watershed, to apply to divert Great Lakes water.”

Further, the DNR states, such proposals must satisfy “all of the requirements of the compact and Wisconsin statutes.”

A number of cities all around the Great Lakes (within specific Great Lakes basins) use lake water as their primary municipal source.

Waukesha has proposed to withdraw an annual average of 10.1 million gallons of water per day, and a daily maximum of 16.7 million gallons per day to serve an estimated population of 97,400 upon final build-out of its proposed water supply service area (approximately the year 2050).

The Wisconsin DNR states in its press release that the new drinking water source is needed for the city “to address water quantity and quality concerns. The city currently relies primarily on a deep aquifer groundwater supply, but depressed water levels in the deep aquifer have compounded a problem of high concentrations of naturally occurring radium.”

A key to applications for water diversion, like that of the city of Waukesha, will be how much of the water taken will be replaced. In the case of the Wisconsin city, the return might be on par with the take.

The NWF encourages regulators and state and provincial officials to act carefully and cautiously.

“The importance of this application cannot be overstated, as it will set a precedent for how the region will manage the Great Lakes now and for years to come,” Marc Smith, NWF policy director, said in a press release. 

“The Great Lakes Compact is clear that diverting Great Lakes water is a last resort. The city of Waukesha has not proved conclusively that it really needs to divert Great Lakes water to meet its needs.”

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