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Great Lakes Article:

Nearby regions could tap Great Lakes under plan
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 line.

"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 County.

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 Great Lakes."

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 Lakes.

Local environmentalists Monday hailed the proposal's release.

"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.


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