Great Lakes group approves Waukesha's water request

Fox River flows through Waukesha, Wis.
The City of Waukesha says it doesn't have an adequate drinking water supply because of radium contamination in its groundwater. Here, Fox River flows through the Wisconsin city's downtown area.
John Flesher | AP 2013

Updated: 1:30 p.m. | Posted: 12:43 p.m.

Representatives from eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces gave their recommendation Wednesday to a controversial application from Waukesha, Wis., to pump water from Lake Michigan, 15 miles to the east, as a replacement water supply for its radium-contaminated wells.

The vote was 9-0, with Minnesota abstaining. Julie Ekman with the Minnesota Department of Resources told the group that Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr "are still consulting with stakeholders on changes made" to Waukesha's application. "This should not be considered a negative reflection" on it, she added.

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The recommendation now goes to the governors of the eight Great Lakes states, who will vote on the proposal on June 21. A unanimous vote is required to approve Waukesha's application.

The city agreed to scale back its plans after receiving initial feedback from the states in March. Waukesha originally proposed pumping about 10 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan, and wanted to use it to expand its service area, something it said it was required to do by Wisconsin state law.

But other states balked at those provisions, and Waukesha agreed to reduce its daily take to about 8 million gallons and not expand its service distribution area. It also agreed to strict water conservation goals.

Groups opposing Waukesha's initial application are encouraged by those changes, said Marc Smith with the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. "But we are disappointed that the Regional Body did not completely reject Waukesha's flawed diversion proposal," he said.

Still, Smith added that his and other groups will examine the new conditions placed on the application to "determine if they uphold the letter and spirit of the Great Lakes Compact."

The compact was passed in 2008 to protect the lakes from attempted water grabs. The compact only allows cities located within the Great Lakes Basin to withdraw water from the lakes. But it allowed for two exemptions, for towns that sit right on the edge of the watershed, or for cities located in a county that straddles that basin dividing line.

The latter exemption would apply to Waukesha, and this application is the first test-case of that exemption in the Great Lakes compact. For that reason, this application has generated intense scrutiny from some groups who fear granting Waukesha an exemption could open the floodgates to other thirsty communities requesting a straw into the Great lakes bountiful waters.

That's why it's important to get this application right, according to the National Wildlife Federation's Smith. "We want the compact to work," he said. "This is really important, because this is the first test."