Great Lakes States and Provinces Evaluate Waukesha Water Diversion Application

Feb 18, 2016

At 3 pm today, Wisconsin's neighboring seven state and two Canadian provinces will listen to what the public has to say about Waukesha's request to draw water from the Great Lakes Basin.

The visiting delegates face an immense decision, and the Great Lakes Compact is their guide.

It came to life in 2008 after years of discussion and negotiation. The agreement bans diversions from the Great Lakes Basin, save rare exceptions.

The City of Waukesha falls under one of them.

It is located in a county that straddles the Basin, and Waukesha is in acute need of safe drinking water safe for its residents. Their community's deep wells have become increasingly contaminated with radium.

Waukesha wrote, revised and rewrote its application requesting Lake Michigan water as its only long-term solution.

The Wisconsin DNR deemed the request approvable and last month, forwarded it to its Great Lakes neighbors for review.

Stop at Waukesha's sewage treatment plant.
Credit S Bence

Wednesday, after a quick greeting in Carroll University’s Campus Center, fourteen representatives from neighboring Great Lakes states and provinces were whisked aboard a white touring bus for a Waukesha Diversion Tour.

It followed the pathway Waukesha wants to use to take and return water from Lake Michigan.

Close to the spot on the Root River Waukesha hopes to discharge treated water on its way back to Lake Michigan.
Credit S Bence

The group trundled from the city’s sewage plant, southeast for a brief pause along the Root River, all the way to Bender Park in Oak Creek.

Finally when the delegates settled into a conference room back on the Carroll University campus, questions began to flow.

Minnesota’s representative Julie Ekman wanted to know more about the impacts of returning treated water back to Lake Michigan via the Root River.
 

Julie Ekman is Minnesota's designee on the Great Lakes regional body.
Credit S Bence

"The benefit as I understand it is to steelhead trout, but what other kinds of impact did you look at? What about sediment loading with there be any increase in that? Will it impact ice formation and how does that impact the ecosystem," Ekman asks.

Water supply specialist Nicki Clayton says the Wisconsin DNR looked at both positive and negatives impacts.

"Water quality standards have to be met and our standards are based on fish and aquatic life uses, and public health uses and so we based it on could water quality standards be met, when we were making our decision," Clayton says.

But what dominated the afternoon's discussion was Waukesha’s proposed service area.

Its application extends beyond the city limits, folding in portions of other towns including Waukesha, Delafield and Genesee.

Jennifer Keyes (center) represents the Province of Ontario.
Credit S Bence

Jennifer Keyes from the Province of Ontario referenced the provisions of the Great Lakes Compact.

"Water should be solely for public water supply purposes of the community within the straddling county that is without adequate supply of potable water. So I understand the applicant and the proposal is meeting Wisconsin state law around servicing areas, but I guess we’re looking for a bit more information on how those additional communities have done their assessment to see whether or not they have adequate potable water supplies outside of Waukesha," Keyes says.

Eric Ebersberger is water use section chief with the Wisconsin DNR.

He says Wisconsin law requires that water supply service areas match what's called an "area wide water quality management plan."

"So water supply planning would match sewer service planning," Ebersberger says.

Grant Trigger from Michigan.
Credit S Bence

Michigan representative Grant Trigger pressed the issue. He questions whether the additional communities folded into Waukesha’s plan have a “justifiable need” of its water supply.

"That’s a problem that we’re having. And I raise these points again, not being critical of the work being done. I don’t want to do something that five years from now we’re going to regret because we didn’t figure things like this out and we didn’t sort out the right basis for the decision," Trigger says.

Jennifer Bolger sat among the fifty-some people observing the discussion. She’s executive director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper and part of an environmental coalition concerned about Waukesha’s proposal.

"I was glad to hear that a lot of the questions we have are some of the questions that the regional body is looking at as well," Bolger says.

The regional body will listen to what the public has to say this afternoon, and will accept comments on line or by mail until March 14. Its decision is expected by late May or early June.

Under the Great Lakes Compact all eight states must approve a diversion.