Will Waukesha's water needs open Great Lakes floodgates?

Fox River flows through Waukesha, Wis.
Here, the Fox River runs through Waukesha. The city of Waukesha is seeking permission to draw its drinking water from nearby Lake Michigan. Local officials say the river can't meet the city's needs.
John Flesher | AP file

With its groundwater wells contaminated with radium and city leaders under court order to find a new water source, Waukesha, Wis., saw an obvious fix — tap Lake Michigan, just 15 miles to the east.

The massive lake, one of the world's largest freshwater sources, would scarcely notice the 10 million gallons per day the city hopes to draw. Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, got the OK from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources after five years of review.

The plan, however, must still get the backing of Great Lakes governors, including Gov. Mark Dayton. That could prove difficult.

Waukesha would be the first exemption to a part of the Great Lakes Compact, an interstate deal signed in 2008 intended to protect the lakes. Critics are warning now that an exemption for Waukesha would set a dangerous precedent in an increasingly thirsty world.

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The fear has always been that, "If we were to give water to people who were 5 miles out, what do we do when people come who are 50 miles out, or then 500 miles out, do we make this yellow brick road to Las Vegas?" said Peter Annin, author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars" and co-director of the Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

That fear of shipping precious Great Lakes water far away has bubbled for decades. It came to a boil in 1998 after a Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, company proposed shipping tankers full of Lake Superior water to Asia to be turned into bottled drinking water. Ontario officials granted a permit allowing a draw of 38 tankers a year.

That 1998 proposal eventually helped lead to the creation of the Great Lakes Compact, which was approved by all eight Great Lakes states and signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. Canada approved a parallel agreement.

The compact "is like a legal water fence that keeps Great Lakes water inside the Great Lakes basin, with some limited exceptions," Annin said.

Those exceptions are for towns that sit right on the edge of the Great Lakes water basin, or, like Waukesha, in a county that straddles the basin dividing line. Waukesha's $207 million project would pipe in about 10 million gallons of water a day and then return an equal amount of treated wastewater to the lake.

"This is the precedent setting case, this is the first one," Annin said. "So all future water diversion applications under the straddling county exception clause will all be at least referred to if not based on the decisions that are made here."

Waukesha's application will be sent to Dayton and the other Great Lakes governors within the next two months. Minnesota officials expect a decision sometime in the spring.

Waukesha officials say they're simply planning for growth and following Wisconsin's state water policy by matching their water supply service area to their wastewater service area.

The city has looked at more than a dozen options beyond tapping Lake Michigan and none would be sufficient, said Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility.

He noted its plan would not affect Great Lakes water levels.

"There's not a choice between protecting the Great Lakes and providing water to Waukesha. Both of those can occur under the compact," he said. "We believe the governors will see that the plan to borrow Lake Michigan water is Waukesha's only reasonable alternative for a water supply for the city."

Marc Smith with the National Wildlife Federation opposes Waukesha's request, arguing the city hasn't exhausted all its options.

"They have an alternative they have not explored, and that is simply treating their water for radium," he said.

The proposed Lake Michigan project, he added, would deliver water to neighboring communities that don't need it. "The compact is pretty clear, there has to be an expressed need for the water in order to be approved for a diversion."

Some Minnesota lawmakers are also skeptical. Earlier this year state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, and 18 other Minnesota lawmakers expressed their concerns to the Wisconsin DNR.

Hansen said he's not convinced Waukesha has a critical need for the water.

"Is it needed as a critical drinking water request, or is it being asked for as an economic development tool?" he asked. "Once you break the seal, you've broke the seal. Once you have the exemption, then you've set a course for future action."