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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Compact Council Rejects Request To Reconsider Waukesha Water Decision

Susan Bence
The Great Lakes Compact Council convened in Chicago Monday.


The Compact Council deliberated for less than a half hour Thursday before it unanimous voted not to repoen or modify the decision allowing Waukesha to draw Lake Michigan water.

Wisconsin DNR secretary Cathy Stepp said the Compact Council's final review further reinforces that the Great Lakes Compact works.

According to a Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative spokesperson, the group will review the Compact Council's written opinion before deciding on its next step, but added the Cities Initiative has not ruled out taking the case to court.

Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly calls the Compact Council's decision a step forward in providing residents with clean, reliable and sustainable drinking water.

Reilly added that he hopes the Cities Initiative "will end their opposition and join us in creating a world-class water program that will not only serve our community well into the next century but also be the standard for sustainability and protecting our Great Lakes while improving the quality of the Root River."

Original story from March 21:

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, made of both U.S. and Canadian mayors, opposes Waukesha’s plan to draw drinking water from Lake Michigan.

For years, the City of Waukesha has been under court order to come up with a safe alternative to its radium-tainted aquifer. Last summer, the Great Lakes governors granted the city permission to use water from Lake Michigan, after a years-long and expensive permitting process.

Credit Susan Bence
Attorney Jill Hutchison

On Monday in Chicago, the eight Great Lakes delegates sat as if assembled for a banquet looking down on Jill Hutchison, the attorney for the mayors' group.

She shared their concerns – including the amount of water Waukesha wants to pump from Lake Michigan.  

When approving Waukesha’s request, the Compact Council cut back the city’s plan from 10.1 million gallons a day to just over 8 million.

 Hutchison said after that happened, “the city of Waukesha should provide you with some updated supplemental materials under the actual service area that might be permissible. And then the Compact Council would allow additional public comment in case there’s information that’s not being provided by the applicant, because to be fair, when the applicant comes to you seeking water all the materials they are providing are angling toward getting water, so you may not be getting the other side if you don’t allow public comment on an appropriate scope of the diversion. Finally to then make a decision about whether or not that standard is met. “

Compact delegates, including Michigan’s Grant Trigger, peppered Hutchinson with questions.  

“Do you question the Compact’s authority to impose conditions on an application?” Trigger asked.

Hutchison questioned Waukesha’s assertion that its return plan – sending treated waste water down the Root River on its path to Lake Michigan – will improve the stream’s quality.  

“For example, I believe it was .075 on phosphorus as a very low level to claim that it’s returning very clean water to the Root River, if those requirements cannot be feasibly be met and the City of Waukesha cannot in fact return such clean water to the Root River ….and does that level of water have an adverse impact,” Hutchison said.

Credit Susan Bence
 Attorney Paul Kent

Then Waukesha had its turn at the microphone.  Attorney Paul Kent spoke on the city’s behalf.

“Okay, what does the record show about Waukesha. It shows that its discharge is anticipated to be of higher quality that is already there in the Root River and that the increase flow will benefit the fishery,” Kent said.

He went on to address the phosphorus question.

“That’s not an aspirational water quality standard, it’s not a narrative standard. We’re going to have to meet .075 milligrams per liter or whatever standard the department imposes that is more stringent than that,” Kent said.  

Kent asserted the Compact Council fulfilled its job in granting Waukesha permission to divert Great Lakes water.  He called the process a high bar for Waukesha to meet, not a brick wall that no community could ever break through.

 “We know we’re being watched by everybody in terms of meeting those standards,” Kent said.

 Environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin was among the people who observed the hearing. She believes the Compact Council should consider that other Wisconsin communities also are dealing with radium-tainted drinking water – yet aren’t asking to draw from Lake Michigan.

“And this case as the record shows Waukesha’s neighbors, Pewaukee and others, who rely on the same aquifer are already treating that same water for radium and doing so appropriately and safely for its citizens and they’re not looking for Great Lakes water as an alternative,” Habush Sinykin said.  

Michigan Compact Council delegate Grant Trigger said his state carried out its own rigorous review of Waukesha’s application, including public comment. That exercise fuels his confidence that the full council made the right decision in giving Waukesha the green light.

“I think that the initial process we used, the review we did was thoughtful, it went in depth, we evaluated a lot of factors,” Trigger said.

Even though he stands by the decision to allow Waukesha to tap into Lake Michigan, Trigger said the full council will consider what opponents have to say. He said the Great Lakes Compact allows people to challenge the body’s decisions.

Trigger anticipates the Compact Council’s determination on the challenge from the mayors' group will come down early in May.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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