TORONTO – A request by a small city in Wisconsin to draw water from the Great Lakes is causing concern among American and Canadian communities around the basin, with some opponents warning the move could set a dangerous precedent for other jurisdictions facing water shortages.
Waukesha, a city of about 70,000 people, wants to divert water from Lake Michigan because its own aquifer is running low and the water is contaminated with high levels of naturally occurring cancer-causing radium.
The city argues that although it’s located outside the boundary of the Great Lakes basin, it is part of a county straddling that geographical line and therefore should be allowed access to the lakes’ water. It also promises to return treated water to Lake Michigan.
Under a current regional agreement between eight U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec, diversions of water away from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin are banned, with limited exceptions that can be made only when certain conditions are met.
Waukesha is seeking to become the first such exception.
Ontario and Quebec have a part to play in the entire process, which is heading towards a final decision this spring, because they are part of the regional agreement known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, which was signed to protect waters in the basin.
Because Waukesha is in the U.S., however, the two Canadian provinces will not be part of a final vote by eight state governors that will determine the issue.
Nonetheless, Canadians are among those being invited to comment on Waukesha’s proposal — at www.waukeshadiversion.org — until March 14.
Opponents of Waukesha’s plan — who say the city has other alternatives — argue that allowing it to access Great Lakes water would set a dangerous precedent.
“The significance of this application is very far reaching,” said Mitch Twolan, mayor of Huron-Kinloss, Ont., and chair of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which represents more than 100 local governments on both sides of the border.
“This could open up the door for different municipalities and counties and regions around the Great Lakes basin that maybe don’t have a good supply of water or in some cases not the best water.”
Twolan’s group is firmly opposed to Waukesha’s plan and has asked state and provincial governments that are part of the Great Lakes regional agreement to reject the city’s application.
“If you look at what’s going on in the southern United States, and then you get out to Arizona and Nevada and California and water shortages, that’s going to be a big issue over the next several years.”
The Ontario and Quebec governments haven’t made their positions public just yet, but Ontario is conducting its own review of Waukesha’s plan, which it will submit for consideration to its fellow Great Lakes members by March 22.
Ontario has also recognized the worry Waukesha’s application is generating among some of its own residents.
“We’re definitely taking this one very seriously,” said Jennifer Keyes, manager of the water resources section in Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “Many of our Ontario stakeholders have expressed concern about the proposal and wanting to make sure that all jurisdictions do a thorough review.”
Ontario’s review seeks to test Waukesha’s proposal against the standards and tests outlined in the Great Lakes regional agreement, Keyes said.
“Ontario’s review is really on the ‘straddling counties’ definition, to make sure that the Waukesha proposal meets the criteria,” Keyes explained.
“The Great Lakes basin is large and there potentially could be lots of ‘straddling counties’ so we just want to make sure our detailed review ensures the definition of straddling county is upheld.”
After public comments and reviews are submitted, Waukesha’s application will be evaluated at a meeting in April by the eight states and two provinces, who will try to come to a consensus on whether to dismiss the proposal, approve it outright, or approve it with certain conditions.
That body’s finding will then be voted on only by the eight states that make up what’s known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact for a final unanimous decision.
Although the Canadian provinces don’t get a final vote, their opinions could have a significant impact on the other Great Lake states, according to one Canadian environmental group.
“When Ontario and Quebec oppose, this isn’t going to be taken very lightly,” said Natalija Fisher, manager of the water program at Environmental Defence.
“The Great Lakes represent 20 per cent of the world’s available surface freshwater but supply is limited. So as climate change threatens lakes more and more, and populations are continuing to grow, the demand for these limited water supplies is increasing, which means more needs to be done to protect them.”
The Great Lakes support 33 million people, including nine million Canadians and eight of Canada’s 20 largest cities, according to the federal government.