water management

Siphoning the Great Lakes, opening the floodgates

Critics worry Wisconsin city's water diversion plan sets dangerous precedent
Photo: Nick Olejniczak

The Great Lakes region is a $5.8-trillion economic powerhouse, with waters that provide sustenance for more than 40 million people in Canada and the United States. Now, the only bi-national entity in charge of protecting it is being put to the test for the first time, in what many are calling a precedent-setting case.

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The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has found that the city of Waukesha's current water supply — a sandstone deep aquifer — is not only deplenishing but contains higher than accepted levels of a carcinogen called radium. It has therefore ordered the city to find another water source.

City officials claim their studies have indicated that the only viable and environmentally sustainable alternative is to divert an average of 10.9 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan. They promise that if their plan is approved, nearly all of the water will be treated and returned to the lake via the Root River.

But critics worry that this plan will severely impact a water system already under threat.

Growing demand for a finite resource

In 2008, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact became U.S. federal law. Ratified by each state adjoining the lakes, it governs how the states manage the Great Lakes Basin.

“The Great Lakes are a finite resource.”

According to a report by the Alliance for Great Lakes, a lack of “binding rules” under which to review water diversion applications creates “a void that may expose the pact to legal challenge.” This could open the floodgates for other communities to exploit vulnerabilities in the process and seek Great Lakes waters to meet their future demands.

The report identifies at least eight communities in three states straddling the Great Lakes Basin that could potentially ask for water diversions within a decade.

“As the region grows, there will be more demand for water,” said Mark Fisher, head of the Council of the Great Lakes Region. “The Great Lakes are a finite resource … so it's not necessarily the impact of a single project, but of a number of projects like this one, which is why people want to subject it to a very rigorous and comprehensive review.”

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body — which includes eight U.S. governors and the premiers of Quebec and Ontario — formed for just that purpose in 2005. It has until April 21 to render one of three possible non-binding declarations: accept, accept with modifications or decline.

“Ontario recognizes the sensitivity of the Waukesha proposal, since it is the first application to undergo regional review,” wrote Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations officer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, in an email. But it “is too early in the process to indicate any type of support or opposition.”

The positions taken by Ontario and Quebec will heavily influence the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council, which includes only the eight U.S. governors and has the power to make a legally binding decision. Also known as the Compact Council, it was established in 2008, and since then 27 pieces of legislation have passed on both sides of the border to implement its parameters. Ontario's Bill 66, or the Great Lakes Protection Act, is one of the latest examples.

“We wanted to ensure that the governors on the U.S. side and … the premiers on the Canadian side, if such a situation (water diversion applications) were to arise, would have a voice and opportunity to make that voice heard,” said Peter Johnson, deputy director of the Conference of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.

Chief Leslie White-Eye of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, located between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, said she would hold off on making any comments regarding the diversion application until after the first public meeting was held on Feb. 18 in Waukesha. However, she was not available for comment by press time.

A real or trumped-up need?

Under the compact, communities straddling the Great Lakes Basin or within states that straddle it are able to apply for a diversion. But they also have to prove that they have exhausted all other alternatives and implemented water-conservation mechanisms.

Waukesha is located within a straddling state, but critics claim the city has cherry-picked its data and manufactured a need by pulling in portions of communities that don't meet the standards.

“The issue is that the City of Pewaukee, the parts of Delafield and Genesee and the town of Waukesha that (the City of) Waukesha has included in its application haven't … demonstrated that they have a need for water,” said Molly Flanagan, one of the members of the Alliance for the Great Lakes who attended the Feb. 18 meeting.

The Great Lakes have been drying up since 1999.

But according to Dan Duchniak, general manager at Waukesha Water Utility, state law requires a water supply service area that includes a waste water supply service area, too. To ensure the water returning to Lake Michigan is mostly Great Lakes water and not water from other sources, the City of Waukesha has included communities “mainly already developed” and with common sanitary sewer systems that have been established for nearly three decades, said Duchniak.

“So what we're talking about is making our water supply service area consistent with that, so that we can do proper planning and sizing of pipeline that would need to come from the Great Lakes.”

Two views of the data

Another issue has to do with the city's current deep aquifer levels.

The city says the aquifer is “severely depleted” due, in part, to a natural formation of shale rock preventing its recharge through rain and snow melt. But the Compact Implementation Council claims an independent study it commissioned found otherwise.

“I think they're misusing data a little bit,” said James Drought, head of Hydrology at GZA Environmental, one of the companies hired by the council to investigate.

“Yes, the aquifer is fairly depleted … but we're seeing a very dramatic rise in water levels over the course of 10 to 15 years,” he said. “Most of the recharge that enters the sandstone aquifer is entering from a distance beyond that shale rock, so to say that shale is preventing recharge to the sandstone is geologically incorrect.”

The study report concludes the most “cost-effective and technically feasible alternative” is for Waukesha to continue using its shallow and deep water wells and to invest in better treatment infrastructure.

This includes a reverse osmosis technique, which is being used to treat radium in at least one other community. This option, says the report, “costs dramatically less than a diversion, avoids a regulatory morass and secures independence for Waukesha residents, protects public health and minimizes environmental impact.”

Duchniak disagrees.

He admits there was a brief rebound in the aquifer levels when New Berlin and other communities switched to a shallow aquifer. But he says the last five years have seen a decline that is “projected to … drop an additional 200 feet” if used over the next 50 years. He also questions the study's objectivity, claiming there was no real consultation with the city to find out what they were doing.

“The city is currently under court order to come into compliance with the radium standard,” said Duchniak, adding that the state of Wisconsin supports its diversion application “because of the impacts associated with implementing any other alternative.”

Great Lakes drying

The Great Lakes have been drying up since 1999, with the exception of a small rebound in water levels between 2013 and 2014. Multiple studies, including one from the Mowat Centre and the Council of the Great Lakes Region called Low Water Blues, have reported that if depressed water levels persist, the long-term impact to the region's economy, on both sides of the border, could reach up to CAD $20 billion by 2050.

The decision about Waukesha’s diversion application will determine just how protected the Great Lakes are and what will be needed to protect them in a future where water is quickly running out.

Droughts and lack of potable water are afflicting the world over — from Bolivia to Eastern Africa to the United States and right back here to Canada's North, where communities live in Third-World-like conditions.

What will happen down the line, when more communities in a situation similar to Waukesha's need to find alternate sources of water? Will the Regional Body and Council Compact be strong enough to ensure the protection of the Great Lakes while also ensuring those communities can access drinkable water?

People have until March 14 to submit comments and concerns on the water diversion application. They can do so via email at comments@waukeshadiversion.org; snail mail at 20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite 2700, Chicago, Illinois, 60606; or online at www.waukeshadiversion.org/comments

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