After 3 years, the City of Waukesha has finally submitted its revised Great Lakes diversion application proposing to divert an average of 10 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan to Waukesha.

Waukesha lies wholly outside of the Great Lakes Basin, but is within a “straddling county” and thus eligible to apply for an exception to the ban on diversions of water outside of the Great Lakes per the Great Lakes Compact.

The Great Lakes Compact is an unprecedented, multistate agreement aimed at protecting the Great Lakes from “overspending.” Under the Compact, the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes agree to adopt water-conservation plans and to abide by Compact rules for allowing and managing diversions of Great Lakes water. The Compact recognizes the lakes as a shared resource, which no single state owns, but of which all states are stewards. As such, a defining feature of the Compact is its emphasis on using regional cooperation to manage the lakes as a single ecosystem.

Waukesha Diversion

The revised application includes major changes from the initial application submitted in May 2010, including a slight decrease in the amount of water requested, a new preferred water supplier of Oak Creek, and a change in the preferred wastewater return location from Underwood Creek near Wauwatosa to the Root River near the Racine County line.

Waukesha now gets its public water supply from a mix of shallow and deep groundwater wells. The groundwater in the deep aquifer contains high levels of radium, a carcinogen, which Waukesha needs to address per court order by 2018. By mixing water sources, Waukesha currently meets federal radium standards 11 months out of the year.

The revised application materials are now available on the DNR website.

Why is there so much attention being paid to Waukesha’s proposed Great Lakes diversion?

Waukesha is the first test case of the Great Lakes Compact, which was established to ensure that Great Lakes water stays in the Great Lakes. And thus, Waukesha’s application will set a precedent for all future water diversions out of the Great Lakes, not only for Wisconsin, but also for the entire Great Lakes Region.

The Great Lakes Compact generally bans diversions of water outside of the Great Lakes Basin but provides for an exception for “straddling communities” that extend across the Great Lakes Basin line as well as communities in “straddling counties” that can show that they have no other reasonable water supply alternative. Communities seeking a diversion need to return Great Lakes water back to the basin (as close as possible to the water source), minus an allowance for consumptive use. The Great Lakes Compact also provides a better framework for cataloging the amount of water being consumed and used throughout the Great Lakes Basin for large water users (which wasn’t really known before) as well as requires water conservation both within the Great Lakes Basin and for communities seeking a diversion.

The State of Wisconsin has passed their own rules to implement the Compact, which provides more detail as to how applications are reviewed and how key Compact provisions are interpreted and enforced. The State has a provision that specifies, for example, that any return flow discharged to surface waters must ensure that there are no physical, chemical, or biological impacts on streams, and applicants must meet these State implementing laws as well as key provisions of the Compact. Ultimately, the State must approve a diversion application first, then it gets forwarded to the Canadian provinces for consultation, and then to the other Great Lakes states, who must approve it unanimously.

Position of the Compact Implementation Coalition

The Compact Implementation Coalition, a group comprised of conservation and environmental organizations, works for effective implementation of the Great Lakes Compact in Wisconsin. Our Coalition is not for or against diversions of water from the Great Lakes basin. Rather, our goal is to protect the integrity of the Compact. The Compact prohibits diversions with the exception of limited circumstances and only as a last resort; protects and manages the magnificent resource of the Great Lakes in a unified manner; and requires the adoption and implementation of strong water conservation measures. After years of attempting to work with the City of Waukesha on evaluating water supply options for the City, and offering constructive suggestions for its diversion application, the revised application does not meet several of the basic requirements of the Great Lakes Compact. Examples of some major deficiencies of the revised application are:

  • The City of Waukesha has not made a compelling case that it is without a reasonable local water supply alternative and, therefore, it does not need a diversion.
  • The City seeks water for a greatly expanded service area that includes communities or portions of communities that have their own adequate supplies of potable water;
  • The City does not fully employ conservation measures available to reduce its water need;
  • The City proposes to discharge treated wastewater into a waterway that is already impaired by pollution and they do not demonstrate how this would comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

In reviewing the City of Waukesha’s application, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources should address these and other deficiencies in the City of Waukesha’s application in a straightforward manner. The Department should ensure that these issues are fully resolved and are in compliance with the Great Lakes Compact or else they should not approve this application.

Give Your Input

Given huge changes in the diversion application, the City of Waukesha held public information meetings in Waukesha, Racine, Oak Creek, and Milwaukee in early November to provide an overview of the revised application and answer questions.

WDNR will hold hearings after the draft documents are done, most likely in early 2014. WDNR also accepted written comments on Waukesha’s revised application until December 2, 2013.

We will keep you informed of opportunities to provide public comment as information becomes available.

Additional Information

Below are additional resources: