Waukesha Crusade for Lake Michigan Water Raises Red Flags

Guest blog by Marc Smith, Policy Manager, National Wildlife Federation

For those that follow water diversions and the Great Lakes, all you have to do is mention “Waukesha” and it generates such a mixed bag of reactions.

Waukesha, Wisconsin, is a city in and the county seat of Waukesha County, located just west of Milwaukee, and the Great Lakes Basin. It was once known for its extremely clean and good-tasting spring water and was called a “spa town.” This earned the city the nicknames, “Spring City,” and “Saratoga of the West.”

However, the natural springs have since fallen victim to mismanagement, spoiled by pollution and as a result a number have gone dry. Continual withdrawals from the deep aquifers over the years have exposed the water supply to radium, a naturally occurring toxin. Now, Waukesha is pursuing a diversion of Lake Michigan water that, according to the city’s Water Utility, is the best solution to replace its failing deep wells with lake water and comply with a 2018 stipulation it reached with the Department of Natural Resources to supply radium-free water. Lack of compliance with this date will result in stiff fines.

The latest draft application from the City of Waukesha, raises more questions than answers. Granted, lets applaud the Waukesha Water Utility and current Mayor Larry Nelson, for proactively reaching out to all stakeholders, and especially the conservation community, in Southeast Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes Basin. In my mind they have gone out of their way to communicate and work with all the relevant players in their crusade. But given that this application will represent the first out-of-basin request for a diversion since passage of the Great Lakes Compact and this is a precedent setting event that everyone is watching very closely.

At its most basic, the Compact provides protections against diversions outside of the Great Lakes basin and unwise water use within the basin. There are limited exceptions for diversions. Out-of-Basin communities such as Waukesha must have water –diversion applications approved by all eight governors (via the Compact Council). In addition, Wisconsin must consider the input of the two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes before making a final decision.

But when you compare the current draft application from Waukesha with the exceptions in the Compact, it raises more questions.

Such as:

  1. Unavoidable Need: The Compact is clear that the need for the proposed diversion cannot be reasonably avoided through efficient use and conservation of existing water supplies. Waukesha’s draft is puzzling because of the complete abandonment of the city’s current water supplies. The application repeatedly states that increased groundwater withdrawals are not sustainable, but what about present withdrawals, or reduced withdrawals? Nowhere is there any indication of combining or blending Lake Michigan water with reduced withdrawals from current supplies, which could have the effect of allowing the deep aquifer to gradually recover and for the resulting blend to reduce or eliminate projected treatment requirements;
  2. Reasonable Use: The Compact is clear that diversions are limited to quantities reasonable for the purposes for which the diversion is proposed. However, in Waukesha’s draft, the basis for the city’s proposed diversion quantity -18.5 million gallons per day (mgpd), is based on a projected 2035 maximum day demand. This seems very excessive given that the cities current average is 7 mgpd. The use of water for growth certainly raises the stakes for how the WI Department of Natural Resources and Regional Body treat this application. Moreover, let’s look at the city’s population estimate. According to Waukesha, the population is projected to increase by 30% while average annual demand increases by 58% and peak day demand for water increases by 87%. Red flag. Is Waukesha converting its lawns to cranberry bogs? Seems to me that the real question is about using Great Lakes water for development more than to sustain an existing population;
  3. Return-Flow: The Compact calls for all used water to be returned back to the Great Lakes Basin, less an allowance for consumptive use, at a place as close to the place at which the water is withdrawn. This is probably the most unknown answer in the current draft. The City has proposed to return its treated water via Underwood Creek that eventually flows into Lake Michigan. The cumulative impacts of this discharge are unknown and raise many concerns and potential problems;
  4. No significant adverse impact: Under the Compact, diversions will result in no significant adverse individual or cumulative impacts. Again, the current draft portrays an unclear picture on the impacts to the exhausted and over-stressed Southeast Wisconsin aquifers and throughout the Great Lakes Basin. The good news is that the WI Department of Natural Resources is committed to developing an Environmental Impact Statement on this application;
  5. Environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation: Looking at the draft application, it is not clear that the benefits of the city’s ongoing water conservation programs have been factored into its projected future demands, and thus its request for Lake Michigan water. This is an important principle for this precedent setting application as the diversion request must reflect the successful and sustained implementation of reasonable conservation measures;
  6. Compliance with all applicable laws: As I list above, there are many red flags here. All the more reason for the Wisconsin DNR to resolve these and other areas of uncertainty through administrative rulemaking before addressing this application for a diversion of Great Lakes water.

I think the biggest theme that seems to be missing in this application is any sense that the spirit of the Compact is to minimize out of basin uses of Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s current crusade seems to be based on economic growth. And even in that attempt, “Spring City” doesn’t make a very strong case.


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