November 21, 2013
Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn’s opinion article, wrote on behalf of the Compact Implementation Coalition, was featured in the Journal Sentinel!
November 20th, 2013
By Cheryl Nenn
At the heart of the water debate in Waukesha remains unanswered a simple but highly important question.
How can the city and water utility honestly say there is no reasonable water supply alternative to Lake Michigan?
Start with the numbers. Waukesha is asking for permission to divert 10.1 million gallons daily from the lake to replace current supplies, and the city has set 16.7 MGD as a maximum. Now think about current use, which averages around 6 MGD, meaning the application is calling for 40% higher water use than we see today.
These numbers represent an expanded service area — thousands of residential and business customers not already hooked up to the Waukesha system — in areas such as Pewaukee and the Towns of Delafield and Waukesha, where officials have agreed the existing wells are viable. These areas are lumped into the application for Great Lakes water as a contingency in the event that the wells fail in the future.
This is an important point for analysis as the state Department of Natural Resources reviews the application for use of Lake Michigan water. The Great Lakes compact, a landmark agreement reached just five years ago by eight states and two Canadian provinces, allows for lake diversions only when “no other reasonable supply alternatives are available.” For some of the communities in the expanded service area, there is no need for an alternative water supply, and communities are planning to continue using existing water sources.
Our group, the Compact Implementation Coalition, is not against the diversion per se. Our mission is to work to ensure effective implementation of the compact as part of a greater effort to protect the lakes for many generations to come. Everyone deserves access to safe, sustainable water. The question for Waukesha is how to provide safe water for its citizens in the most responsible way, while also meeting the compact’s legal requirements.
The compact is designed to prohibit diversions, creating exceptions under very strict standards for communities such as Waukesha that are wholly outside the Great Lakes basin. Allowing Waukesha to do any less than what is required in the compact would compromise this historic interstate agreement that protects 95% of the U.S. surface fresh water supply. We do not believe that Waukesha has made a compelling case that it meets these standards, and ultimately it is the city’s job to prove it has met these standards.
Waukesha’s application contains other alternatives, including continuing to use a combination of deep and shallow wells, as well as relying entirely on using more riverbank inducement wells and shallow wells. Costs for the latter alternative are estimated at $217 million, or $10 million more than a Lake Michigan diversion.
Waukesha contends that these local alternatives are not reasonable as they would hurt wetlands, rivers and private wells on a mass scale, as was intimated in a recent article, “Environmental groups dispute Waukesha’s need for Lake Michigan water.” For the record, our coalition has never suggested that Waukesha could meet future water supply needs by entirely abandoning current deep wells and solely using wells that tap shallow groundwater supplies. Our coalition has advocated that Waukesha pursue a more balanced approach, using existing local water supplies coupled with more aggressive water conservation measures.
Waukesha has spent years mismanaging and contaminating local groundwater supplies, while also developing “straw men,” local water supply alternatives that easily can be invalidated for environmental or economic reasons. While Waukesha has stated that a Lake Michigan alternative is the only reasonable option, it has never seriously looked at making a Plan B work. We also question whether this expanded service area renders “reasonable” alternatives less feasible because of the increased volume of water requested.
The compact also requires that communities seeking a diversion must first implement all available water conservation measures. Although Waukesha has a detailed water conservation plan, it has not been implemented to the level required by the compact and Wisconsin law. Communities in the expanded service area do not have conservation plans, which causes another problem with the compact. Communities are required to minimize or negate their need for Great Lakes water by employing reasonable conservation measures first.
Waukesha’s application is receiving a lot of attention as the first test case of the Great Lakes compact, as it should. It will set a precedent for all future water diversions from the Great Lakes, not only for Wisconsin but for the entire Great Lakes region. As citizens, it is our responsibility to challenge assumptions. Ultimately, the DNR must carefully consider whether this application meets the protective standards of the compact.
With science and the law as a guide, it is clear that Waukesha’s application falls short on many fronts.