Why Waukesha matters

Great Lakes from space

by Brenda Stockholm-Grundt

I have received correspondence from constituents concerned about Waukesha Wisconsin’s proposal  for their water problems, but I would like to raise the issue as one of importance for anyone who is concerned with the Great Lakes because it amounts to a precedence setting case that could have a big impact on the watershed.  Since Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing butts up against two of these lakes I would suspect interest in the subject will be high in the area.

Here is the background: the town of Waukesha is dealing with high levels of radium in their drinking water and claim they have exhausted all options available to them.  To fix their problem they would like to divert Lake Michigan water as a source of drinking water for the town.  This is important because even though Waukesha is a short distance from the Lake Michigan it is actually part of the Mississippi drainage system.

The application is being made under the terms of the Great Lakes Compact which is an entirely American tool governing the waters of the lakes and St. Lawrence system.  The Compact bans new diversions with the exception of communities near the basin along with the demand that the water be returned.

Proponents are claiming the diversion will meet the terms of the Great Lakes Compact.  Opponents view the request as precedent setting which could open the door for bigger diversions in the future.  In addition to that, some opponents are suggesting that Waukesha has not exhausted all the options available to them and are merely chasing the easiest solution to their problem.

A quick search of the internet will provide pages of links to articles in local papers on the subject.  Almost all are written about towns, individuals, or groups opposed to the proposal.   Great Lakes mayors on both sides of the border are lining up in opposition as well.  The concerns are related to both water levels – a familiar recent issue – and water quality since pristine water will be replaced with treated waste.

Underlying those concerns is the threat of bulk diversion should the Compact be broken.  The high profile water crisis in Flint is one example of what may seem a reasonable diversion, but how long would it take for dryer areas of the United States to look at the Great Lakes as a solution to their problems as well?  With 18% of the world’s fresh water the Great Lakes supply may seem limitless, but without exercising a very cautious approach, we could learn there is a limit and at that point it may be too late.

Since the project is confined entirely within the United States, Canada doesn’t have the power to reject the proposal.  That said the eight Great Lake states along with Ontario and Quebec will meet to discuss the proposal in late April.  In addition to that, Canada has the power to request the International Joint Commission to look into the matter should it become necessary. Obviously it is a situation that must be followed closely.  What do you think?