Last month, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council, commonly known as the Great Lakes Compact Council, unanimously approved a request from the city of Waukesha, Wisc. to use Lake Michigan as its source of drinking water. Because Waukesha was in a county that straddled the Great Lakes Basin, it needed to request permission for the diversion as outlined in the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, which was designed to manage and protect the freshwater system. The review process forced Waukesha, the first city to make such a request, to scale back its initial diversion proposal and to design its system such that all water is returned to Lake Michigan. The Alliance for the Great Lakes advocated that conditions be placed on Waukesha’s request to ensure the diversion did not cause environmental harm. Molly Flanagan, the group’s vice president of policy who also helped negotiate the original compact, spoke with MiBiz about the process and what the ultimate approval means for future diversion requests.
How well have people in the Great Lakes been paying attention to this issue?
When I go places, this is one of those issues that people ask questions about. It’s not that often that there’s an environmental issue that I’m working on that average people in the public know something about. I feel like this is one of those where people are really paying attention.
How did the Alliance for the Great Lakes and others shape the outcome with Waukesha?
(T)he Regional Body (including the provinces of Ontario and Quebec) and the Compact Council agreed with us and many other organizations and individuals across the Great Lakes region that Waukesha’s application, as it was originally submitted, did not meet the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact. The Regional Body first and then the Compact Council added conditions on to that proposal to really improve it and set a higher bar for future communities that might want to apply for a diversion of Great Lakes water.
How would you rate the outcome of the process?
The Alliance for the Great Lakes feels like the outcome that Waukesha was able to get water but was forced to jump through a lot of hoops to get that water is really not a bad outcome because of the precedent that it does set for other communities that might want Great Lakes water. … Having a process that showed that it’s really challenging, that it takes a long time and it’s really expensive to get an approval of a diversion … is probably close to the best outcome we could have hoped for.
Were there any disappointments with the way the process played out?
We had lots of disappointments, in particular with the process. There was only one public hearing, and it was held in Waukesha, Wisconsin. We really felt like every state and the two provinces of Ontario and Quebec should have held public meetings where they took input from citizens of their jurisdictions. Michigan actually did hold a public hearing of its own. Michigan set a good example for the other states, but we would have liked to see other jurisdictions do that.
Are you satisfied the public had enough opportunity to weigh in on Waukesha’s proposal?
There was a public comment period on Waukesha’s original diversion proposal. (After that,) the Regional Body and Compact Council added a bunch of conditions that in many ways changed the application, but there was no opportunity for the public to weigh in before a final decision was made. … The Compact Council’s meetings — you actually had to come to the meetings in Chicago. There was no opportunity to call in and participate by webinar. In this day and age, there’s really just no reason not to have that transparency and open public process around that meeting.
What’s next in this process from the Alliance’s perspective?
Our work really isn’t done. This chapter is closed in terms of the Compact Council decision. There really are a lot of other steps that need to be taken. … One of the things that we’re going to be watching very closely, as the state of Wisconsin and Waukesha implement this diversion, is that it’s meeting all of the conditions that have been placed upon it. In particular, we’re going to be paying close attention to the Root River. The Root River is a tributary that flows into Lake Michigan, and it’s going to receive Waukesha’s wastewater and be the way that Waukesha returns its water to the Great Lakes.
What specifically are you watching with the Root River?
There could be, potentially, a number of localized impacts within the Root River, so we’re going to be watching really closely on the water quality permits, on how the city of Waukesha is managing the quantity of water that’s flowing through that river, and to make sure the communities are protected from flooding. And (we want) to make sure the water, when it actually gets to Lake Michigan, is a high enough quality that we’re comfortable with it going into Lake Michigan.
What recourse does the Alliance have to make any challenges along the way?
If there are concerns or if we or others feel like the state of Wisconsin or the city of Waukesha really aren’t meeting the requirements that have been placed on them, then there’s an opportunity to talk to the other jurisdictions — the other states — about that, or to bring a lawsuit to say, ‘Hey, you’re not meeting these requirements.’
How do you see the Waukesha decision affecting future water diversion proposals?
A number of people have worried about this idea of death by a thousand straws, that you could really harm the Great Lakes over time by letting too many communities suck water out of the Great Lakes. I don’t think that’s going to happen. … I think it’s going to deter a lot of communities from trying to get a diversion of Great Lakes water.
What advice would you have to other communities that might be considering a diversion?
They should only go through this process if that is their last resort. It’s too expensive, it takes too long, and there’s a lot of public scrutiny. I can’t imagine a community wanting to go through that unless they don’t have any other options left.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard. COURTESY PHOTO