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Governors say "yes" to Waukesha water diversion

Only 17 miles from Lake Michigan's shore, Waukesha, Wis. wants to replace its contaminated drinking water with water from the lake.
flickr user Rachel Kramer

All eight of the governors of states in the Great Lakes Compact voted Tuesday to approve Waukesha, Wisconsin's application to divert water from Lake Michigan.

The city of Waukesha is 17 miles from the lake, straddling a county that is within the lake's water basin.

That made the city technically eligible to apply for a diversion under the compact, to replace its own water, which is contaminated with radium.

"What this shows is it is not easy to get a diversion of Great Lakes water," said Marc Smith of the National Wildlife Federation.

Waukesha's application has been years in the making, and officials made significant modifications to the first request, including reducing the amount of water the city can pump from 16 million gallons a day to 8 million gallons.

Smith says it's important for people to note that the water diverted from Lake Michigan to Waukesha will be returned to the Great Lakes basin, resulting in no net loss of water to the lakes, as required by the compact.

A statement from Governor Snyder emphasized the fact that Waukesha is already using some water from Lake Michigan, and sending it outside the Great Lakes basin, into the Mississippi River watershed. Experts estimate about 30% of the groundwater currently being used by the city comes from the Lake Michigan watershed.

The city of Waukesha, Wisc. will no longer draw half a billion gallons of water per year from the Lake Michigan Basin and pump it into the Mississippi River Basin, under a new compact agreement approved unanimously today by all eight Great Lakes states, including Gov. Snyder’s Michigan vote.

Some critics of the diversion were unswayed by this reasoning.  U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Candice Miller issued a joint statement:

We strongly disagree with today’s vote by the Great Lakes Compact Council approving Waukesha’s request to divert over 8 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan per day. There is nothing more instinctively wrong to Michiganders than to allow for the diversion of the precious, finite resource our magnificent lakes provide. Waukesha has known about elevated radium levels in their water supply for decades and has failed to act. Now, taking the easy way out, they are asking to siphon water from Lake Michigan.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also was opposed to the diversion. From his statement:

I was disappointed to learn that the Governors of the Great Lakes will allow water to be diverted outside of our watershed to be used by municipalities outside the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes Compact was specifically designed to prevent the diversion of water from the Great Lakes and approving this application is setting a bad precedent.

Waukesha plans to build a pipeline to a town that is closer to Lake Michigan in order to divert the water.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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