The wait continues to find out if a Wisconsin city’s request to draw water from Lake Michigan, which would weaken the standards that protect the water balance of the Great Lakes ecosystem, will be given the green light.
A late April meeting between a group of eight U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec, signatories to the Great Lakes Agreement and members of the Regional Body, was scheduled to be the last formal opportunity for provinces to comment on the application from Waukesha, Wisconsin. However, due to opposition to the city’s diversion request on both sides of the border, no decision was made. Instead the application is being revised and a final meeting of the Regional Body will take place later this month.
The Great Lakes Agreement and Compact do not allow communities outside the basin to draw water from the lakes, but Waukesha is the first community in a county that is half in and half outside of the Great Lakes Basin to make a request for exemptions from a ban on diversions. The city has radium in its groundwater. However, there are other options available instead of pumping water from the Great Lakes to ensure Waukesha’s residents have access to safe drinking water. Neighbouring communities who share the same aquifer are using technologies to treat their water. If this test case is approved, it would set a dangerous precedent that would weaken existing protections for safeguarding and conserving the Great Lakes.
The decision to approve or deny the application will set the tone for future requests.
Which is surely one of the reasons why there’s been overwhelming opposition to this plan. Since we last wrote about the application, thousands of you have written to Ontario’s premier asking that the province oppose Waukesha’s diversion request. Out of the 11,200 public comments received by the bi-national regional body during the public comment period, a total of 99 per cent (and 100 per cent of the Canadian comments) either opposed or expressed strong concerns about the request. On this side of the border, First Nations, NGOs, and 14 municipal governments are amongst those voicing opposition.
Ontario echoed many of these concerns in its independent technical review of the application. The review flagged some problems with the plan including the expanded service supply to communities that did not need the water. Another was the minimal effort towards evaluating and selecting feasible alternatives to the diversion. And another was the lack of information and assessment into how treated water would impact the water quality of the Root River where the city proposes to discharge return flows back to Lake Michigan.
Ontario’s concerns were acknowledged by the amendment that lowered the diversion amount to 8.4 million gallons per day and that saw portions of neighbouring communities removed from the application. But not all of the province’s concerns raised in Ontario’s technical review have been addressed. For example, the revised application does not reflect the ability of conservation to avoid part or all of the diversion given this reduced diversion amount. Nor does it address the concern that a diversion should only be allowed as a last resort. The Regional Body meeting later this month will be the final opportunity for Ontario to recommend that the diversion request be denied if Ontario’s valid concerns are not addressed.
The Great Lakes are integral to the region’s ecosystem and economy. They represent 20 per cent of the world’s available surface freshwater, and that supply is limited. Only a small fraction is renewed annually. As climate change threatens the lakes more and more, and populations continue to grow, the demand for these limited water supplies is increasing.
It’s more important than ever to maintain the integrity of Great Lakes protections. And Waukesha’s proposal is one test case that should not be taken lightly.