Great Lakes Compact Undergoes Its First Major Test

Waukesha water diversion permit application could set dangerous precedent

07-27-2011 // Aislinn Maestas
Photo of Bass Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park in Benzie County, Michigan

When the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was signed into law in 2008, it was heralded as a historic agreement, protecting wildlife and habitat from water diversions out of  the Great Lakes basin and promoting sound water management within the basin.

Five years later, implementation of the Compact has varied from good to bad to ugly. Now, for the first time, the Compact is being tested on one of its most important provisions: protecting the Great Lakes from diversions.

Waukesha Tests the Waters

The city of Waukesha, WI faces threats to its public water supply.  Waukesha obtains most of its water from deep aquifer wells. Because of years of over pumping, the aquifer level is dropping five to nine feet per year.  As the level drops, the quality of the water has decreased, resulting in high levels of total dissolved solids and radium. By 2018, the city must install expensive treatment systems to comply with the federal drinking water standard for radium.

Because the city is located in a county that straddles the Great Lakes Basin divide, Waukesha is eligible to apply for a diversion of water under the "straddling county" exception in the Compact.  In May 2010, Waukesha submitted an application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to withdraw up to an annual average of 10.9 million gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan. A review process will determine whether or not the application will be accepted.

To gain approval, Waukesha must demonstrate that:

  • it has no reasonable water supply alternative, including conservation of existing water supplies;
  • the amount it seeks is reasonable;
  • the water will be returned to the source watershed less an allowance for consumptive use;
  • and there will be no significant individual or cumulative adverse resource impacts.

Because the Waukesha permit application is the first to undergo the review process, the outcome will set a precedent for future diversion requests. For this reason, National Wildlife Federation is working with our partners to ensure that this application meets the strict criteria set out by the Compact.

“For better or for worse, the Waukesha permit decision will affect how the public views the success of the Compact in protecting the Great Lakes from diversions,” said Sara Gosman, water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

Asking Hard Questions

After reviewing the application, NWF has identified several areas of concern, including:

  • Waukesha fails to establish a need for a diversion. The application fails to show in a systematic and connected manner that the City has fully explored and exhausted the full range of “other water supply alternatives” in lieu of a diversion.
  • The requested amount of water to be withdrawn is unreasonably high. The overall amount of water being requested (18.5 million gallons per day) seems excessive given that the cities current average is 7 million galls per day.
  • The application does not fully address how water will be returned to the basin. 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 close to the place at which the water is withdrawn. The documents do not explore return flow options for water supply sources other than from the City of Milwaukee and it is not clear that the full cost and environmental impacts for various return flow options just for this one water supply source have been adequately considered.

National Wildlife Federation is urging supporters to submit comments or attend public hearings on the issue to raise these concerns about the application.

Hearing schedule:

  • July 27, Wauwatosa - Hart Park, Riverview Room, 7300 Chestnut St.
  • July 28, Sturtevant - Sturtevant DNR Service Center, 9531 Rayne Road

All hearings will include open house starting at 5:30 pm where attendees can ask questions of the DNR and pick up written materials. The presentation and question and answer period begins at 6:00 pm. Formal public hearing will be conducted at the conclusion of the question and answer period. 

People who can't attend the hearing can submit comments through Aug. 13 to Kay McConnell, DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI, 53707-7921, or by sending an email to Dnrwaukeshadiversionapp@Wisconsin.Gov. There will be a second public comment period and round of hearings after the DNR has completed its review and has a draft decision.

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