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Great Lakes water is too precious a resource to be given away for a questionable need

The abundant freshwater of the Great Lakes is liquid gold to thirsty states out West and to communities lacking clean drinking water. Attempts to tap that supply are to be expected, but the latest threat to lake water comes not from Los Angeles but from a Wisconsin city a few miles from Lake Michigan.

As reported in The News, the governors of the Great Lakes states will have to decide whether Waukesha, a city not far from Milwaukee, will be able to divert water from Lake Michigan. This is not a simple question.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact says no water is to be sent outside the basin. Waukesha’s current deep well water source is contaminated by radium. A court has ordered Waukesha to deliver water free of radium, leading city officials to propose tapping Lake Michigan.

Officials argue that because their city is in a county that straddles the line between the Great Lakes Basin and Mississippi River, it should be allowed to divert water from Lake Michigan. Opponents of the action say the city has not exhausted other sources of water, and wants much more water than it needs.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the other seven governors have a tough choice to make. Under the compact, if any one of them opposes the diversion, the request is dead.

So far Cuomo is staying mum on his intentions, unlike Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster. He worries about the precedent-setting nature of allowing any diversion, even though Waukesha wants only a tiny bit of the 6 quadrillion gallons in the Great Lakes. Dyster says approving the diversion will undermine the spirit and letter of the compact, which was approved by the eight states and two Canadian provinces in 2008.

But if exceptions were never to be allowed, why was provision made for them to be allowed by a unanimous vote?

In a way it is hard to blame Waukesha officials for reaching a glass out to the closest fresh water supply. And it is equally understandable that governors might balk at filling that glass.

Diverting water from Lake Michigan should be a last resort, not the easiest route. Because the city hasn’t exhausted other options, for now the answer should be no.

The governors are scheduled to vote on Waukesha’s request in Chicago on May 23. They should do more than simply vote on this one rather small request.

The abundant water of the lakes is a precious resource that needs more than a wall to keep it in. The governors need a solid plan to use this resource to promote a blue economy that will help reverse decades of decline.