Waukesha, Wisconsin lies just 17 miles from Lake Michigan, but the city has a big water problem. And local officials want to build a pipeline to the Great Lakes in order to fix it.
The issue: There’s too much radium in Waukesha’s groundwater supply. Radium occurs naturally, but it’s a carcinogen. And 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.
“Ultimately, the radium exceeded the federal drinking water standard,” he says. “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.”
The city has to come up with a permanent solution for its radium problem by 2018. It 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. The city would treat the water and return it to the lake. And Duchniak says that kind of use doesn’t pose any risk to the Great Lakes.
LISTEN: “Wisconsin City’s Bid to Use Great Lakes Water”
But there’s a catch: Waukesha won’t be able to move forward with its plan to use Great Lakes water unless all eight Great Lakes governors sign off. That’s because of something called the Great Lakes Compact.
The agreement bans diversion of Great Lakes water—with a few exceptions. Waukesha is in a county that lies just outside—but straddles—the border of the Great Lakes Basin. 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,” Smith says. “And the first one, we have to get it right. 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. And others agree that this is a critical test of the Great Lakes Compact.
“I think we’re at this historic turning point in the history of the Great Lakes Compact,” says Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars and co-director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.
“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, 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 report in 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.”
On December 8, the Wisconsin DNR gave notice to the other Great Lakes states, along with Ontario and Québec, that it intends to forward Waukesha’s proposal to the Great Lakes governors. The application was formally submitted on January 7. If just one governor says no, the proposal will be scrapped.
Annin expects this process will wrap up in late spring or early summer.
This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio’s Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.