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Another Voice: Compact allows for Waukesha’s effort to tap lake

By Shawn Reilly

A recent Buffalo News editorial said Waukesha’s request to borrow and return Lake Michigan water should be denied “because the city hasn’t exhausted other options.”

Our city has made the request to borrow and return Great Lakes water because we do not want to waste or exhaust new water resources.

Our current supply is severely depleted and projected to drop another 200 feet or more over the next 50 years. A unique geological feature restricts recharge by rain and snow. It also has increasing levels of naturally occurring contaminants, including radium, a carcinogen. We are required by a court order to come into compliance with federal drinking water standards. In short, we have to find another supply and Great Lakes water is our most reasonable option.

The editorial also raises the possibility of Great Lakes water being sent to places like Los Angeles. That won’t happen. The Great Lakes Compact prohibits lake water from being pumped beyond counties that straddle the basin’s surface divide. But it does allow water to be used in straddling counties (like Waukesha’s) if the need is demonstrated, the water can be returned and the Great Lakes governors agree.

Under our application, we would borrow 1/1,000,000th of 1 percent of Great Lakes water and return 100 percent of that volume, after use and advanced treatment. There will be absolutely no impact on lake levels.

Waukesha did not make this request in haste. We examined water supply alternatives for more than 10 years. An expert panel created by regional planners also studied alternatives for five years. And the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources thoroughly reviewed our 3,000-page application for more than five years. Each one concluded that our only reasonable alternative – the actual standard of the compact – is to borrow and return Lake Michigan water.

We are not applying for Lake Michigan water because it would be easy or inexpensive. We are doing so because it is the only way to provide a healthy drinking water supply for our residents without causing unnecessary environmental harm.

The compact’s straddling counties provision is not a loophole or a violation of the spirit of the agreement. It is an essential provision that was included with the expectation that Waukesha would apply to use and return Great Lakes water. It is important to support the entire compact, including this key provision.

Approval of Waukesha’s application is not a choice between protecting the Great Lakes and providing Waukesha with a clean, sustainable water supply. Under the Great Lakes compact, we can do both.

Shawn Reilly is mayor of Waukesha, Wis.