Waukesha's water diversion application wins unanimous approval

John Flesher
The Fox River flows through downtown Waukesha is in this 2013 file photo. Representatives of thegovernors of the eight Great Lakes States on Tuesday, June 21, unanimously voted to approve Waukesha’s water diversion application.
Published on: 6/21/2016

Waukesha will get its water.

In a historic vote, the representatives of the governors of eight Great Lakes states voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon, June 21, to approve Waukesha's request for Lake Michigan water.

'The vote today means the city can now move forward in providing a reliable, sustainable, and safe supply of drinking water for its residents,' said Mayor Shawn Reilly following the decision. 'We fully respect the specific conditions spelled out by the states and provinces as part of this approval and we are committed to compliance.'

The city filed its water diversion application in 2010 in an attempt to meet its long-term water needs and comply with radium restrictions. A lake water supply would replace 10 wells, including seven deep wells drawing radium-contaminated water from a depleted sandstone aquifer.

Waukesha is under a court-ordered deadline to have radium-compliant water by June 2018.

The city was seeking water under a 'straddling county' exception of the Great Lakes Compact, a federal law that details how the Great Lakes states should work together to manage and protect the Great Lakes Basin.

The compact prohibits Great Lakes water from being pumped beyond counties straddling the lakes' drainage basins. The city is entirely outside the basin, but lies within a county that straddles the boundary of the basin.

Amended application

Officials, who met in Chicago, discussed some proposed amendments to the city's application — which previously received a favorable review from the Great Lakes Regional Body — before voting on it.

In May, the body approved the city's application with conditions, including a reduced service area and a draw of no more than 8.2 million gallons of water per day by mid-century. Under the application, 100 percent of the water would be returned to Lake Michigan through the Root River.

The amendments generally were minor.

One, proposed by Michigan and Minnesota, specified that Waukesha's application initially did not comply with the Compact but that the version of the application approved last month by the regional body did.

Another stresses that the Great Lakes states, individually or collectively, can take actions to compel the city into the compliance with the Compact.

Historic event

Waukesha is the first community to apply for the exception since the Compact became law in 2008.

But Reilly said, 'This approval does not change the law that prohibits diversions to locations like Arizona or California. The Compact strictly prohibits water from going beyond straddling counties.'

Reilly added that the Regional Body's findings made it clear that the precedent set by Waukesha is very narrow, even in straddling counties.

'The findings point out the many ways that our circumstances are unique,' he said.