Nearby regions could tap Great Lakes
Governors' proposal sets limits on use of coveted water
By Lee Bergquist and Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published July 20th, 2004
Governors of the eight Great Lakes states unveiled a proposal
Monday intended to keep the world's largest freshwater
system from flowing to arid regions of the country, as
well as the world.
At the same time, the governors intend to help thirsty
regions inside their own states by cracking open the door
to Great Lakes water for cities just outside the watershed
known as the Great Lakes basin.
That could be good news for the parched communities in
places such as Waukesha County, where wells are drying
up, and much of the water that is left has dangerously
high levels of radium. The City of Waukesha is desperate
to find a new source of water that can supply 20 million
gallons a day.
However, a key recommendation says that any out-of-basin
use of water over 1 million gallons a day would require
all eight Great Lakes governors' approval.
As the law currently works, any governor from any of
the eight states bordering the Great Lakes can deny a
request to divert water outside the Great Lakes basin,
and the governors have a history of being stingy.
Only two communities - Pleasant Prairie in Kenosha County
and Akron, Ohio - have received diversion permission in
the past 18 years. Many believe the existing system is
too arbitrary to hold water in court because the governors
don't have to base their denials or approvals on any established
set of criteria.
By setting limits on water use, and requiring that water
be returned to the lake, thirsty communities just outside
the basin could tap the lakes under the new proposal.
But others hundreds, or thousands, of miles away would
have trouble meeting the requirement to return the water.
The proposal comes three years after Great Lakes governors
and premiers of Ontario and Quebec pledged to find new
ways to protect the lakes. There is concern that growing
demand for water in Sun Belt states could make the Great
Lakes a target.
But in metropolitan Milwaukee, there also is concern
that providing Waukesha with a fresh source of water will
only exacerbate urban sprawl and harm Milwaukee County.
Patrick Curley, an aide to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett,
said Barrett wants to examine the measure closely. Milwaukee,
Curley said, still is open to the idea of sharing water
with communities west of the basin, which ends in this
area a few miles west of the Milwaukee-Waukesha county
"If we are going to look at this as a regional issue,
then it is time to talk about economic development and
affordable housing and transportation - and take those
issues as seriously as water," he said.
The proposal also would, for the first time, require
conservation for those who now use Great Lakes water.
One example: The conservation provision would require
any entity using more than 250,000 gallons a day to show
it is taking steps to reduce demand for water.
In a teleconference from Seattle, Wisconsin Gov. Jim
Doyle said Monday's proposal keeps the door ajar for Waukesha
Waukesha County officials are pinning much of their hopes
on the idea that groundwater they have been tapping for
decades will eventually flow back into Lake Michigan and
help replenish the Great Lakes.
Groundwater beneath Waukesha County once flowed into
Lake Michigan and helped replenish the lake. But decades
of municipal pumping west of the subcontinental divide
has shifted the flow of water away from the lake.
Those groundwater arguments, Doyle said, are scientific
issues that need to be explored during the public hearing
process that will take place in Wisconsin and other Great
Lakes states over the next three months.
"What (Waukesha) is understanding is that there
is a way for a decision to be made that is based on science
and good practices, rather than one governor saying yes
or no," Doyle said.
An environmentalist also sounded upbeat.
"I don't think these standards create an insurmountable
barrier for Waukesha and I don't think they give Waukesha
a free pass, either," said Noah Hall of the National
Wildlife Federation. "These standards present Waukesha
with a challenge to develop the best water management
they can, in a way that creates the least harm to the
Waukesha Water Utility general manager Dan Duchniak said
he was encouraged by the proposal that calls for water
to flow outside the basin's dividing line, provided that
treated wastewater is returned to the lakes.
Waukesha would likely meet that criteria, but it could
be years before the new rules become law. The city is
under the gun from the Environmental Protection Agency
to find a fresh source to replace the city's existing
wells, which are plagued with high levels of radium, a
naturally occurring but potentially cancer-causing substance.
Monday's proposal by a working group of the Council of
Great Lakes Governors could take years to become a reality.
The public has 90 days to make comments before it goes
back to the governors of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan,
Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as
well as the premiers of Ontario and Quebec.
Any governor, or any legislature, or Congress, can stall
a process that many believe will take at least two to
three years to accomplish.
But Duchniak said he also has a responsibility to Waukesha
residents. He said the city has "pondered" the
possibility of pushing the issue into court if things
don't happen quickly enough.
"There is enough gray out there that we would definitely
have a case," Duchniak said. "The best thing
would be to develop policies that protect, preserve, restore
and improve the Great Lakes. However, if that policy is
slow in developing, or we need to move forward with (finding
new source of drinking water), I wouldn't rule out that
potential" for a lawsuit.
The worry would be that if Waukesha sued and won, it
could lead to an uncontrolled water-rush on the Great
Local environmentalists Monday hailed the proposal's
"It is a remarkable environmental initiative. There
is so much anti-environmentalism going on at the federal
level that we're ecstatic that the states in our region
are taking a different and more bold approach," said
Milwaukee's Gary Ballesteros, a board member of the conservation
group Lake Michigan Federation.