The next steps: Waukesha’s Great Lakes diversion process continues

Lake Michigan sunrise
, By Ezra Meyer

You probably know that Clean Wisconsin has worked for years on Great Lakes issues, ranging from water quality to invasive species. You also know that one issue that has been a special focus for is the Great Lakes Compact and the City of Waukesha’s proposal to divert water from Lake Michigan outside of the Great Lakes Basin.

The Great Lakes are majestic, mysterious and even slightly scary. They’re amazingly beautiful, they’re a lot of fun to play on and near, and they’re the drinking water source for a large chunk of our population in Wisconsin.

But the lakes are also incredibly vulnerable. Only 1% of the total volume of water in the lakes moves through the system in a given year, driven heavily by rainfall, snowmelt, and ice cover in the winter. If we were to pump too much of that water away to other places, the whole water system and ecology of the lakes would be irreparably harmed.

That’s why we needed the Great Lakes Compact and why we (and so many of you) fought hard to see that the Compact was enacted. The Compact is clear: water from the Great Lakes will not be allowed to be pumped or carried away to places outside of the Great Lakes Basin. That’s a long-term water quantity protection that makes sense.

That there are some minor but important exceptions allowed to the Compact’s ban on diversions of water outside of the Basin. Those exceptions apply only to communities that straddle the Basin line and to communities lying outside of the Basin but lying within a county that straddles the Basin divide. Waukesha was the first—and remains the only—community outside of the Basin to request a diversion since the Great Lakes Compact passed in 2008. The Compact sets the bar quite high for approval aimed at making sure the water in the Great Lakes stays there. We and many others had serious questions as to whether Waukesha’s proposed diversion met that high bar. We were never convinced that it did. Waukesha was approved for a diversion of Great Lakes water in 2016.

Now, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and other relevant state agencies must approve other aspects of the diversion project under a variety of different environmental and other laws before Waukesha can start building the infrastructure to serve their water users Lake Michigan water. Waukesha is on record saying that they hope to get the specific details of their planned diversion approved and to design and build the project in time to serve residents Lake Michigan water by the end of 2023.

Even though Waukesha has been granted permission to pump Lake Michigan water, there is still important work to be done by all of us who care about the Great Lakes Compact’s important long-term protections for the lakes. As the details of the diversion plan get worked out and all of the applicable laws are applied, we must remain vigilant to ensure no corners are cut and that everything meets all applicable laws.

For example, the Compact requires meaningful efforts on the part of the city to conserve water and pursue water efficiency. We will be working to make sure that ends up happening. Another example is that the discharges Waukesha proposes for its treated wastewater must be set up properly to minimize impacts on water quality, fish and wildlife. Plus, the project has to be done in a way that protects the people who pay water rates to Waukesha’s Water Utility.

At the end of the day, we are focused on making sure the Great Lakes Compact is followed throughout this process and that a proper precedent is set for any future diversion proposals that may come forward under the Compact, whether in Wisconsin or elsewhere around the Basin. Clean Wisconsin will let you know about key opportunities to make your voice heard on these important parts of Waukesha’s diversion process over the next few years.

Additionally, we will be watching for other potential diversion proposals that may arise and for other kinds of threats, whether new or old, to our beloved Great Lakes. And we will make sure you are aware of them so that you can help be a voice for those incredible and yet vulnerable lakes, which don’t have a voice of their own.