The decision by the Great Lakes governors to approve Waukesha’s request to tap Lake Michigan for its water supply is not only a big win for that city’s residents, but also a big victory for all of southeastern Wisconsin.
The Flint, Michigan water crisis has demonstrated that a city’s supply of quality water is not something to take for granted.
With a population of 70,000 residents and a large number of employers, Waukesha is a vital part of the region’s economy. But the city’s water problems had cast a cloud over its future.
Waukesha’s water has high levels of radium, which can increase the risk of getting cancer. The city is under a court order to bring its water supply within federal standards.
Waukesha made a compelling case that Lake Michigan water was the best option for its own water needs and for the environment. Drilling additional wells could have hurt area wetlands, like the Vernon Marsh, while using water from Lake Michigan will allow for rehydration of the deep aquifer, which itself draws water from the lake.
Concerns about Waukesha’s proposal were overblown. Some said allowing Waukesha to use Lake Michigan water would open the door for Great Lakes water to be shipped to far-away dry areas, like Las Vegas. But that’s ridiculous and strictly forbidden under the 2008 Great Lakes Compact. That compact says Great Lakes water can only be used by communities within the Great Lakes basin. The only exception is for communities, like Waukesha, that lie outside the basin but within counties that straddle the subcontinental divide that serves as the boundary of the basin.
To access Lake Michigan water, Waukesha had to go through a rigorous years-long review process. The community had to show it had no viable alternative. It will be difficult for any community to gain approval for a Great Lakes withdrawal. It sure wasn’t easy for Waukesha.
Waukesha will return its treated wastewater to Lake Michigan via the Root River. Some Racine officials, including Mayor John Dickert, have complained, but it’s hard to understand how treated water could cause any significant problems.
Now, Waukesha must get to work on planning the infrastructure to bring Lake Michigan water to its residents. The water will be piped to Waukesha from Oak Creek. That is a coup for Oak Creek, which will gain additional revenue from supplying water to Waukesha. It is also a huge missed opportunity for Milwaukee, which had a chance to be the water supplier but tried to play hardball with Waukesha and fumbled it. Oak Creek officials seized the opportunity.
If the Great Lakes governors had denied Waukesha’s bid, it would have called into question why the Great Lakes Compact allowed communities like Waukesha to apply for Great Lakes water.
Hopefully, opponents of the Waukesha bid refrain from taking legal action so cleaner water can flow through Waukesha faucets as soon as possible.