Will Waukesha get to drink Great Lakes water?

While the public overwhelmingly spoke out against Waukesha, WI’s wish to divert of Great Lakes water, it appears state and provincial representatives are entertaining the proposal more seriously.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published yesterday that Waukesha’s price for Lake Michigan water was to halt city expansion and growth. The article reports that this is the consensus of the eight Great Lakes state representatives, as well as Ontario and Quebec representatives. A draft statement  suggests that the representatives find Waukesha’s proposed diversion would improve the Lake Michigan watershed, and not adversely affect the quality or quantity of the lake water.

The proposal’s terms have been trimmed considerably by representatives of the eight Great Lakes governors and two Canadian premiers. The draft statement, a “Declaration of Findings,” reduces both the quantity of water requested  (from 10.1 million gallons per day to 8.2 million gallons) and the size of the service area to receive the water. Originally, Waukesha’s request included suburban areas bordering on the city – it has surfaced as the major objection for the officials. They stripped these areas from the request under concerns that servicing them would sanction development and urban sprawl.

The city is the first to request a diversion from the Great Lakes Basin, a move prohibited by the Great Lakes Compact of 2008. It is appealing to the exceptions of the Compact, stating that its own aquifers are contaminated with radium and are unfit to use. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was consulted about alternative options for Waukesha’s drinking water problem, but concluded that drilling more wells would adversely affect the area’s wetlands, streams, and inland lakes.

Waukesha’s proposal is unprecedented, and critics fear its approval would set the tone for future requests to regions much farther away, such as California or Arizona.

A recent article by The Atlantic, which drew more interest to the developing story with viral social media attention, pointed out that the public seems firmly against the diversion request:

Public support of the diversion plan has been lacking. During a public-comment period, 11,200 comments were sent by email and letters to the Great Lakes governors from individuals, businesses, government officials, and tribal representatives in the region: The majority opposed the diversion. Some 121 mayors with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative called for the governors to deny the application. In March, of more than 100 people attending a hearing in Duluth, Minnesota, not one spoke in favor of the diversion. Commenters cited concerns about the quality of return-flow water and the precedent the diversion would set throughout the Great Lakes region.

Politicians from both sides of the border have spoken out against the diversion as well. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a letter listing his concerns with the proposal. The Government of Ontario also challenged the diversion request, though Premier Kathleen Wynne does not have an official vote to veto the proposal (only the eight Great Lakes Governors have final vote, though Ontario and Quebec were asked to participate in the decision process.) And most recently, Michigan state Senator John Proos introduced a resolution to Senate to oppose the diversion. Senate Resolution 173 says that “says that Waukesha has failed to meet the standards agreed upon by the Great Lakes states and provinces and that the Senate officially opposes the city’s requested diversion of water from Lake Michigan.”

Going forward, the representatives of eight Great Lakes states and two provinces have requested more time to review the revised request, thus pushing back the final voting date as well. The conference call vote on the revised proposal was supposed to take place originally on May 10th and 11th, and the final vote by governors to be June 13th. The group’s Chairman agreed to extend the conference call to May 18th, and the final vote will now take place on June 20th.

The panel has three options:  declare that the proposal meets the requirements of the Great Lakes compact, does not meet the requirements of the compact, or would meet the requirements if Waukesha makes specified alterations to its plan.

The public waits to see what their decision will be this Wednesday.

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