Environmental groups, municipal leaders, and the public are reacting strongly after eight Great Lakes governors voted unanimously on June 21 to approve Waukesha, WI’s proposal to divert millions of litres per day from Lake Michigan. Though Waukesha isn’t so far from Lake Michigan – at 27 kilometres away, it straddles the Great Lakes Basin – critics fear that the unprecedented decision may open up the Great Lakes to similar requests from other thirsty regions with dire drought or pollution problems.
Among the dissent was the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, an organization of 123 mayors who issued a press release opposing the diversion prior to the vote, and issued another release just after the vote expressing their disappointment with the result. Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee echoed the sentiment in a SaultOnline article.
Keith Brooks, campaign director for Environmental Defense Canada, told CBC that he doesn’t believe Waukesha’s application demonstrated sufficient need for the resource, because it hadn’t exhausted every other option available before requesting the diversion.”Everybody would probably love to take that water, because water is probably in short supply in lots of places,” Brooks said. “The body was created to manage the resource, to protect and conserve it.”
The body he’s referring to is the Great Lakes Compact. It started with the Great Lakes & St Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, a good-faith agreement signed by eight Great Lakes state governors and Ontario and Quebec provincial premiers in 2005. The agreement provided a framework for the states and provinces to implement programs and laws to protect the Great Lakes.
At the same time, the governors endorsed the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. The Compact is a legally binding agreement between the Great Lakes states – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – which details how they manage the use of the Great Lakes’ water supply. It became state and federal law in 2008, and it was this body which Waukesha had to apply to for its Lake Michigan request.
CBC’s article reports that despite the size of the request, Waukesha’s 31 million litres is a drop in the bucket compared to the 40 billion litres per day currently being withdrawn from the lake. Waukesha’s take is 0.07% of that total. Roughly 160 billion litres water withdrawn daily from the whole Great Lakes Basin – of which Ontario consumes the very largest amount at a whopping 41% of the total, followed by Michigan at 23%. Most of the withdrawn water is for thermoelectric power production – 70%, as opposed to 13% being used for public water supplies.
Most of the 160 billion withdrawn litres find their way back to the basin. In 2014, only 1.4 billion litres of that total was lost; this amount was down from 3.2 billion litres lost in 2013.
CBC spoke with Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, to get some perspective on the legal precedent set by the Compact’s vote. They report that while McClenaghan and the Association were disappointed to hear that the vote went Waukesha’s way, she’s skeptical that a similar request from municipalities farther away would be treated as favourably. She told CBC that it would be more economic unrealistic to transport water great distances because of the energy costs involved.
“We certainly hope it will prove the true exception to the rule, not turn out to be a pattern in the future,” she said.