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Regional body of state, provincial officials pores over Waukesha diversion proposal

by Tim Anderson ~ May 2016 ~ Stateline Midwest »
The end of a years-long journey by a Wisconsin town to use the Great Lakes for its supply of drinking water appears near, and the entire process has helped mark the beginning of a new era in regionwide management of this invaluable resource.
The precedent-setting nature of the decision on this proposed diversion was clearly on the minds of state and provincial officials when they met this spring for meetings in Chicago. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body had the task of reviewing Waukesha’s application and recommending whether to approve it.
The eight Great Lakes governors were expected to vote on Waukesha’s proposal in June. A single “no” vote would derail the diversion proposal. Waukesha has been seeking to replace its current source of drinking water (radium-contaminated groundwater) with surface water from Lake Michigan.
Members of the Regional Body (representing the Great Lakes basin’s states and provinces) spent countless hours on Waukesha’s application, trying to make sure that it does not conflict with the language and intent of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.
This historic agreement, established eight years ago, bans most new diversions of Great Lakes water outside the basin. However, exceptions can be made for communities that either “straddle” the basin or that are located in straddling counties. (Waukesha meets the latter description.)
Under the compact, diversion proposals must ensure maximum return flow to the basin, uphold water quality standards, include water conservation measures, and show that no reasonable alternative water supply exists.
In March, close to 100 members of the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus signed a letter opposing the Waukesha proposal, saying it fails to meet the compact’s standards. According to the letter, Waukesha has not made a “good-faith effort” to treat its current water supplies, and its plans for returning wastewater to Lake Michigan could degrade the Root River. The letter also raised concerns about the proposed “water service area,” a subject that became a focal point of much of the discussion among the Regional Body.
Waukesha’s original plan called for an average diversion of 10.1 million gallons per day to serve an area that included parts of neighboring communities.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Regional Body reached a preliminary agreement in May to reduce this service area as well as the amount of the diversion (to 8.2 million gallons of the day.) During discussions in April, Grant Trigger, Michigan’s designee to the Regional Body, noted that Waukesha is already diverting water — because about 30 percent of its groundwater comes from the Great Lakes basin and is then discharged to the Mississippi River Basin.
That fact, he said, might make regional approval of Waukesha less precedent-setting, as it instead could be construed as a “clearer, narrower exception” to the compact’s ban on diversions.