Water Wars: Great Lakes-Style

By JoshMogerman in News on Jul 5, 2015 7:35PM

The prolonged drought out west has shone a light on water law all over the country. But the water wars are not all taking place on the other side of the Mississippi. Get used to the name “Waukesha.” The Milwaukee suburb is about to be at the center of a serious tussle over the Great Lakes that will quickly ensnare all the states in the region, requiring input from Governor Bruce Rauner, the rest of the Great Lakes states Governors and a couple Canadian provincial Premiers. It will be quite a show.

Last month the State of Wisconsin announced a preliminary decision to approve Waukesha’s request to replace their current radium-compromised water sources by getting access to Lake Michigan. Standing in their way is the Great Lakes Compact—a landmark law designed to prevent communities outside of the Great Lakes basin from inflicting a death by 1000 straws on the largest body of surface fresh water this side of the globe. That law includes an exemption for towns in counties that straddle the basin. Such is the case for Waukesha, but as MinnPost notes, the town’s request raises significant concerns in the region:

But if it succeeds in staking this claim, based on a narrow-sounding exception in the rule against out-of-basin diversions, Waukesha will become the first municipality entirely outside the basin to be granted rights to Great Lakes water. And that will set a precedent that hundreds of other communities across eight states and two Canadian provinces could point to and say: Hey, what about us?

Wisconsin is expected to make a final decision later this year, booting the issue to statehouses around the region. In order for Waukesha to tap the Lakes, each of the Great Lakes Governors must sign off. Governor Rauner could hear from mayors of Northern Illinois towns outside the basin with serious radium contamination issues (the problem in Waukesha), like Rockford. Governor Pence in Indiana will likely hear from the Mayor of Lowell, a town desperate for water but sitting outside the basin looking in… The issue likely repeats in every Great Lakes state.

In the grand scheme of things, nobody begrudges the Milwaukee suburbs access to clean drinking water. The question for many critics is whether it should come from the Great Lakes (as opposed to shallower wells or other water bodies in the area)—and how much water they should be grabbing.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hydrologist Doug Cherkauer told the folks at the “Marketplace” sustainability desk that while he understood why Waukesha chose the Lake Michigan solution, he thinks it should have gone another way:

“But the ultimate solution in the case of Waukesha and nationally is to treat our wastewater to the point that it’s not contaminated anymore. That’s technologically possible now. It’s not cheap.”

Others share concerns that other options are out there:

"The Great Lakes Compact is clear that diverting Great Lakes water is a last resort," said Marc Smith, policy director with National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes center. "The City of Waukesha has not proved conclusively that it really needs to divert Great Lakes water to meet its needs."

Beyond that, there are questions of how much water would be appropriate and whether Great Lakes water should be used to fuel growth outside the basin:

“Their own studies show that they’re talking about industrial and business growth,” says [Peter McAvoy, counsel for the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition, a watchdog group]... “Is that reasonable? Will that come at the expense of other communities in the Great Lakes?”

Our town’s massive withdrawal is unique for the region and has been the source of significant Supreme Court attention over the last century, since the reversal of the Chicago River makes Illinois’ voice in the debate somewhat fraught. Nonetheless, get ready for some fireworks…we will be watching.