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Wisconsin city wants to pump its drinking water from Lake Michigan

Flickr user Jenn Durfey/Flickr

Waukesha wants to build a pipeline to the Great Lakes.

The city is in southeast Wisconsin, 17 miles from Lake Michigan. It has a radium problem in its groundwater supply.

Radium occurs naturally, but it’s a carcinogen.

Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, says as the city’s groundwater supply has been drawn down, it’s made the high radium concentration worse.

“And ultimately the radium exceeded the federal drinking water standard and we are now under a court order to come into compliance with that, and the means by which we are going to do that is to develop a new water supply,” he says.

The city has to come up with a permanent solution for its radium problem by 2018.

Duchniak says Waukesha can use Great Lakes water without harming the lakes.

The city wants to divert 10.1 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan in the beginning, and up to 16.7 million gallons a day by 2050.

They’d treat the water, and return it.

The Great Lakes Compact

But Waukesha can’t have any water unless all eight Great Lakes governors say it’s ok.

That’s because of something called the Great Lakes Compact. The compact bans water diversions.

But there are a few exceptions. Waukesha is in a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin line, so it’s allowed to ask for water.

In an email statement, Dave Murray, press secretary for Governor Rick Snyder, says:

Protecting the Great Lakes is Job One in Michigan. The Wisconsin DNR’s notice of intent to file a proposal to draw water from Lake Michigan is the first step in a long process meant to ensure responsible use of our state’s most precious resource. Should Wisconsin move forward with filing a proposal, there will be an extended period for public comment. We’ll work with our regional partners in the Compact Council and and make sure Michiganders have a voice as we identify a solution that will preserve and protect our lakes for years to come.

Marc Smith, policy director with the National Wildlife Federation, says the decision on Waukesha will set a precedent for other cities and counties that straddle the basin line.

“I think the heart and soul of the compact is the prohibition on diversions,” he says. “And the first one outside the gate, really, we have to get it right,” says Smith.

"The question really is not on the impact on the Great Lakes themselves," he says. "The amount of water they requested, even if they got approved for 16 million gallons a day, really is insignificant to the impact on the Great Lakes. That's not really the question. It's making sure we get it right and making sure that everything the compact outlined is followed through."

Smith argues the city can do more before tapping into the Great Lakes.

An expert weighs in

Peter Annin wrote a book about all of this called The Great Lakes Water Wars. Annin also co-directs the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

"I think the heart and soul of the compact is the prohibition on diversions. And the first one outside the gate, really, we have to get it right," says Marc Smith, policy director with the National Wildlife Federation.

“I think we’re at this historic turning point in the history of the Great Lakes Compact: this is the first straddling county application for a water diversion since the compact was adopted by Congress and signed by the president in 2008,” he says. “So we’re really in a new zone here in water management in the Great Lakes region.”

The city of Waukesha and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have been working on this application for years now and Annin says they’re finally ready to move forward.

“What we heard earlier this month is that the Wisconsin DNR has agreed that the application is strong enough at least to pass on to the other seven Great Lakes states for their review, which means we’re going to hear a lot about Waukesha in the next six months,” he says.

Other communities that straddle the basin line might eventually put in bids for Great Lakes water too.

“The Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental organization in Chicago, did a reportin 2013 projecting how many potential future water applicants there could be,” he says. “And they came up with eight stretching roughly from Milwaukee, Wisconsin down to Fort Wayne, Indiana that could be potential water applicants in the future — Fort Wayne being the largest community.”

On December 8th, the Wisconsin DNR gave notice to the other Great Lakes states, along with Ontario and Quebec, that it intends to forward Waukesha's proposal to the Great Lakes governors within 30 to 60 days. Then, the Great Lakes governors will consider the application and if just one governor says no, the proposal will be scrapped.

Annin expects this process will wrap up in late spring or early summer.

“But, you know, it’s the first time we’ve been through this with a straddling county exception, so we don’t really know,” he says.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.