Great Lakes Compact proves valuable in Waukesha ruling

The Great Lakes from space.
The Great Lakes as seen from outer space. This photo, which was provided by NASA, was taken from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Many Mott grantees are commending the first application of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a 2008 federal law that restricts diversions of Great Lakes water outside of the basin and promotes better water management inside the basin.

In a historic June 21 vote, the eight Great Lakes governors approved a request by Waukesha, Wisconsin, to divert 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water daily to provide the community with clean drinking water. The Milwaukee suburb, which is located in the Mississippi River basin but is part of a county that straddles the boundary of the Lake Michigan watershed, sought the diversion to replace the city’s well water, which is contaminated with radium.

Map of the Great Lakes.
This map shows the location of Waukesha, Wisconsin, just outside the boundaries of the Great Lakes basin. Map: The Toledo Blade

Several Great Lakes conservation leaders praised the process that led to the ruling, even though it sanctioned a diversion. The reason: Waukesha’s initial proposal to divert up to 16 million gallons of Lake Michigan water daily was reduced by half, and several conditions were added to the permit.

Those conditions: required Waukesha to return all of the water it diverts from Lake Michigan to the lake; removed neighboring communities that did not immediately need water from the application; increased oversight and empowered Great Lakes governors to force compliance if Waukesha doesn’t abide by terms of its diversion permit; and set a very high bar for future diversion requests.

“The way I see it, this decision will set a very difficult path for the next diversion applicant,” said Marc Smith, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “This is a sound decision.”

Overall, the Waukesha ruling was a successful implementation of the review process set forth by the Compact, said Jumana Vasi, a program officer in Mott’s Environment Program who works on Great Lakes issues. “The end result reduces environmental impacts to the Lake Michigan watershed while meeting the drinking water needs of Waukesha residents,” she said.

Mott grantees worked for years to help develop the Compact, and then scrutinized Waukesha’s application. In the end, those groups successfully promoted changes that reduced the diversion, strengthened protections for Lake Michigan, and established legal precedents that will reverberate across the Great Lakes basin.

“Mott has provided about $4.5 million, dating back 15 years, to grantees that helped develop and implement the Compact,” said Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program. “It’s gratifying to see the diligent work of Mott’s grantees yielding results that enhance the management and protection of Great Lakes water resources.”

Mott grantees involved in the development and implementation of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact

The landmark ruling by the Great Lakes governors ameliorated many, but not all, of the environmental concerns raised by the project. Several political leaders remain opposed to the Waukesha diversion, claiming it set a precedent that will lead to more diversion requests.

Other politicians, and some environmental advocates, said the Waukesha ruling does not send a message to thirsty communities outside of the Great Lakes basin that the lakes are ripe for the taking. They said the ruling demonstrated how costly and difficult it would be for other communities to obtain a diversion.

Waukesha spent nearly $7 million on technical consulting fees to support its application. The city will spend another $200 million on infrastructure upgrades — improvements that will enable the city to draw water from Lake Michigan, make it suitable for use by residents and businesses, and return properly treated wastewater to the lake.

The Compact was developed in response to a Canadian firm’s audacious plan to fill freighters with water from Lake Superior and ship it to high-end hotels in Asia. That 1998 proposal exposed an alarming truth: there was no sound way to prevent diversions or excessive use of Great Lakes waters.

The Compact severely restricts, but does not ban, Great Lakes diversions. It also includes a rigorous review process for communities outside of the basin that want to tap the lakes.

Vasi said one of the conditions in Waukesha’s permit — which prevents the Milwaukee suburb from sharing Lake Michigan water with neighboring communities that are not in immediate need of clean drinking water — will have significant, regional ramifications.

“The agreement will help prevent suburban sprawl around Waukesha and elsewhere in the basin where a bordering community wants to divert Great Lakes water,” Vasi said. That, in turn, will limit the spread of roads and other paved areas that increase stormwater runoff — a major source of surface water pollution.

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