Waukesha’s Great Lakes request approved

City able to withdraw up to 8.2 million gallons per day

The City of Waukesha’s request to withdraw water from Lake Michigan was approved Tuesday by representatives of the eight Great Lakes governors.

The closely watched request was the first test of the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, which banned diversions of water to communities outside of the Great Lakes basin. The compact included an exception for communities in counties that straddle the boundaries of the basin. Waukesha is just a few miles to the west of the basin line, which cuts through the eastern portion of Waukesha County.

“Today’s vote is an enormous accomplishment for the people of Waukesha, after more than a decade of work,”said Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly.  “The regional commitment to implementing the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact is also a victory for protecting this tremendous resource.”

“The same states and provinces that authored the Compact, and who adopted laws to implement it, have determined that the Waukesha application meets the Compact’s standards for borrowing Great Lakes water,” Reilly said.  “We greatly appreciate the good faith they showed in focusing on the facts and science of our application.”

Waukesha will now be able to move forward with plans to withdraw up to 8.2 million gallons of water per day. The city plans to purchase the water from Oak Creek and transport it 27 miles by pipeline. Once used, the water will be treated and returned via the Root River.

“We’re thrilled with today’s vote, which recognizes that Lake Michigan water is the only reasonable water supply alternative for the City of Waukesha – it is the most protective of public health, the least likely to have adverse environmental impacts, the most reliable and the most sustainable long-term water source,” said Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

The city is under a court order to bring its water supply within federal standards for radium by June 2018. Even with approval, the city has said it won’t meet that time frame, since the design, planning and approvals for the more than $200 million infrastructure project to get the water to the city are expected to take plenty of time.

And even with approval from the Great Lakes Compact Council, the potential for legal challenges remains. The exception to the ban on diversions requires a community to be without a reasonable alternative, but opponents of Waukesha’s application have argued the city does have other alternatives to using Lake Michigan water.

The Compact Implementation Coalition, a group of environmental organizations that has repeatedly spoken out against the diversion, issued a statement Tuesday indicating it appreciated the work of those reviewing the application.

“We have no doubt that the extent of public engagement across the Great Lakes states, together with the advocacy efforts of our regional environmental partners, contributed to improvements in the diversion proposal ultimately approved by the Compact Council,” the statement said. “We continue to believe the Compact Council should have denied Waukesha’s proposal to divert Great Lakes water until the remaining areas of non-compliance were remedied.”

Among the issues raised by the Coalition were a lack of a monitoring plan for the return flow. The Coalition said it would review the specific conditions of the the Compact Council adopted “to assess critical shortfalls and appropriate next steps.”

The opponents have also taken issue with the service area.

The initial application included portions of the towns of Waukesha, Genesee and Delafield, along with part of the city of Pewaukee. Those communities were largely eliminated from reduced service area, with many feeling the larger service area didn’t meet the definition of a community in a straddling county.

The revised service area still includes small portions of the town of Waukesha, referred to as town islands. These areas are within the city boundaries, but some opponents say they still shouldn’t have been considered part of the application.

Opponents have also taken issue with the process used to amend the application. The Great Lakes Regional Body, which included representatives from the eight states and two Canadian provinces, imposed conditions on an approval when it forwarded its findings of fact. Opponents argue the public should have been allowed to weigh in on those changes and the ability to enforce the conditions is questionable.

Racine Mayor John Dickert in particular has taken issue with the return flow going back to the lakes via the Root River.

“There is clear evidence that Waukesha has reasonable alternatives to provide safe drinking water to its citizens, and I do not want to see their effluent contaminate the Root River in downtown Racine,” Dickert said in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Reaction to Tuesday’s vote

Gov. Scott Walker: “This is great news for the people who live and work in the Waukesha community … The application went through a rigorous 5-year review process, and we appreciate all the work our neighboring Great Lakes States and Provinces did to make the city of Waukesha’s application stronger.”

Steve Baas, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce senior vice president of governmental affairs: “Access to abundant fresh water resources is a major advantages of the southeastern Wisconsin regional economy. By allowing the Great Lakes Compact to work as designed and approving the Waukesha request after an extremely rigorous review and amendment process, the Great Lakes governors made a strong statement that environmental protection and economic vitality need not be mutually exclusive goals for the region.”

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield: “I also want to thank the governors of our Great Lakes neighbors for looking beyond inaccurate political rhetoric to examine the facts of the case, and for making a good faith effort to uphold the Great Lakes Compact. The fact remains that this plan was the only reasonable alternative for Waukesha’s long-term water issues.”

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett: “My position has remained consistent throughout the Compact vetting process. The sale of water to Waukesha had to comply with the Great Lakes Compact. … Today’s vote by Great Lakes Governors reaffirms the integrity of the Great Lakes Compact. The amendments offered by Michigan and Minnesota, and accepted by all eight states, reaffirms and strengthens the definition of a straddling community and provides additional compliance and oversight; both necessary measures for passing such a precedent-setting agreement.”

Department of Natural Resources secretary Cathy Stepp: “We at DNR are grateful for the efforts of our staff and the thoughtful engagement of the public throughout this process. We look forward to working with Waukesha, its residents and our neighboring Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces to ensure that today’s decision is implemented in ways consistent with the scope of our authority and the needs of the community.”

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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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