Great Lakes Cities Initiative challenging Waukesha water diversion

Mayor not concerned approval will be overturned

Waukesha’s Great Lakes diversion calls for the city to clean the water and return it via the Root River.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:20 pm

A group representing more than 120 cities around the Great Lakes is challenging the approval of Waukesha’s request to divert Lake Michigan water, but Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly says he’s not concerned the approval will be overturned.

Waukesha’s Great Lakes diversion calls for the city to clean the water and return it via the Root River.
Waukesha’s Great Lakes diversion calls for the city to clean the water and return it via the Root River.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative on Monday requested a hearing with the Great Lakes Compact Council, the body that approved Waukesha’s request in June. The group also has written to President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the International Joint Commission asking each to block the diversion.

The cities group said the action was necessary to preserve the long-term integrity of the Great Lakes and the Compact Council.

“This decision opens the door to every neighboring city and county to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin in the U.S. and Canada to get water from the basin without meeting the conditions of the Compact. This is not in the best interest of these resources that are so important to our region,” said Paul Dyster, mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, vice chair of the Cities Initiative.

The group cited concerns it had raised during the review of Waukesha’s application, including the availability of other alternative sources, impact of return flow on the Root River and the service area. Other issues raised in the group’s statement announcing the challenge included public involvement in the review of the application.

“I don’t see any reason to think the Compact Council will change its determination that we meet the legal requirements, and will actually benefit a Great Lakes tributary and the watershed,” Reilly said. “It is hard to understand why other cities – that certainly know the importance of safe drinking water – would choose to challenge a project that will provide safe, sustainable drinking water to our city’s citizens without causing harm to the Great Lakes.”

Waukesha is under a court order to bring its drinking water within federal standards for radium by 2018.

The 2008 Great Lakes Compact bans diversions of water from the Great Lakes, but makes exceptions for cities in counties that straddle the boundary of the Great Lakes basin that meet certain exceptions.

Waukesha sought and was granted an exception to divert up to 8.2 million gallons per day, although the final approval was scaled back from the initial request.

Reilly acknowledged the compact includes provisions for a hearing and said he expects one will be held.

“I can say that I’m not really worried that the Compact Council is going to overturn its own decision,” he said.

The next procedural steps on how to hold a hearing are unclear and a call to the Great Lakes Compact Council staff was not returned Monday afternoon.

Marquette University Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative director David Strifling told BizTimes after the diversion was approved in June that a challenge was possible, but how it would play out might depend on the situation.

“We are all in completely uncharted territory here and no one knows how this will play out,” he said at the time.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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