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Another Voice: Waukesha proposal will not harm the Great Lakes

By Shawn Reilly

The Great Lakes will not be harmed by the application of Waukesha, Wis., to use and return Lake Michigan water under the terms of the Great Lakes Compact. And Waukesha will not set any precedent for harm by others.

Waukesha is 1.5 miles outside of the Great Lakes basin surface divide. Under the compact, it needs the permission of the eight Great Lakes governors, with input from Canadian provinces, to use Lake Michigan water.

Waukesha is proposing to withdraw one one-millionth of 1 percent of Great Lakes water. But then it will return the same amount back to the lakes, after use and advanced treatment. So there is no harm to the Great Lakes.

And water for Waukesha will not set a precedent for harmful diversions of water to, say, California. The question of where to draw the line on use of Great Lakes water was settled with the adoption of the compact as federal law in 2008. Water is prohibited by the compact from being pumped beyond counties that straddle the surface divide of the Great Lakes Basin. The line has been drawn.

Waukesha is in a straddling county, so it can apply for Great Lakes water, but only if it has a demonstrated need and it returns the water to the lake after use and treatment. Only a handful of communities in straddling counties are likely to ever apply for water.

Despite our effective water conservation program, Waukesha needs a new water supply because our primary source of water has been drawn down hundreds of feet. Part of the problem is due to a layer of shale rock in the area that restricts the amount of precipitation that soaks through the ground into the groundwater. The other problem is that the demand on the aquifer is high, due to the dense population in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois.

The drawdown has also caused an increase in naturally occurring contaminants in the water, including concentrations of radium, a carcinogen, that exceed federal drinking water standards. Waukesha is under a court order to provide a water supply that meets radium standards.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has found that continuing use of groundwater by Waukesha would unreasonably damage 700 to 2,300 acres of wetlands, along with lakes, streams and aquifers, even if water use was well below projections. The DNR has issued a draft opinion, after five years of review, that Waukesha’s application meets the compact’s requirements.

We expect the DNR to forward our application late this year for objective review and fact-finding by the states, with input from the provinces. Approval of our application would show that the spirit of trust and cooperation that led to the compact can be relied upon as we face other regional challenges.

Shawn Reilly is mayor of Waukesha, Wis.