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Waukesha Celebrates Great Lakes Compact Council Decision

Susan Bence
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp talks with media after the Great Lakes Compact Council vote.

Tuesday all eight Great Lake states said “yes” to Waukesha's request to draw water from Lake Michigan. It was a historic moment because it was the first test of the Great Lakes Compact, which restricts diversions outside the basin.

The city's underground water supply is dwindling and increasingly contaminated with cancer-causing radium, so Waukesha spent years building its case that the Great Lakes are its only sustainable source for clean drinking water.

Under the city’s plan, its utility there would build a system that connects with Oak Creek's, use and treat the water and then return it to the lake via the Root River.

Throughout previous negotiations, the delegates from Michigan and Minnesota were most vocal in their concerns that Waukesha’s application follow the spirit and structure of the Great Lakes Compact.

Again Tuesday, their voices called for “amendments to amendments”

“There’s been a substantial amount of discussion and questions raised about the issue of enforceability. So for transparency purposes we thought it made a great deal of sense to contain in the order further statement of the authority as we see it exists within the Compact,” Michigan delegate Grant Trigger said.

He says his aim was to cement the compact council’s ability to take action if Waukesha fails to remain in full compliance.

Credit Susan Bence
Minnesota delegate Julie Ekman (second from left) and Michigan's Grant Trigger (far right) with WDNR's Eric Ebersberger and Cathy Stepp. Ekman and Trigger squeezed in final amendments before the Compact Council vote.

“This provision is important to Minnesota and Michigan and not because we think it’s necessary to exercise it but we want to make sure our constituents and our stakeholders understand that we do take the verification of this process and if necessary the follow-up enforcement very seriously because that’s what we think is in the best interest of the Great Lakes,”Trigger said.

So a new amendment gives one or all of the Great Lakes states authority to audit Waukesha’s water utility with just 30-days’ notice.

Then before anyone had a moment to reflect or scribble down a note, the compact council chair launched into the long-awaited question. Votes of approval rang quietly through the air.

Afterward, cameras and microphones buzzed around Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly. He said he felt jubilant, despite the last minute amendments.

Credit Susan Bence
The meeting room at University of Illinois-Chicago was filled with observers, supporters and critics.

 “You know our water utility is going to be transparent anyway. So we’ll probably get a couple requests for audits. After it’s been done a couple of times, people are going to see that we are following all of the rules,” Reilly said.

As for the concern that a green light for Waukesha would open the floodgates to diversion requests, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp poo pooed the notion.

“I have never had concerns about that because I’ve always had faith in the way the Compact was negotiated many years ago, the terms of the Compact that I think should be able to diminish some of those concerns about precedence. The Compact was written in the way for these types of exceptions for a reason, and it’s just a privilege to be the first one out of the gate to demonstrate how well it can work,” Stepp said.

Dave Ullrich heads the Great Lakes and St Lawrence Cities Initiative. Ullrich says the binational coalition of mayors oppose Waukesha’s diversion.

“We are extremely disappointed in the decision of the compact council. If you start loosely interpreting an exception, you are opening the door wide to every straddling county and every straddling city all around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence in the U.S. and Canada,” Ullrich said.

Christy Meyer joined the chorus of concerns expressed by conservation groups. She trekked in from Ohio’s Environmental Council to witness Tuesday’s decision.

“Does it meet the strict requirements of the compact and then the Wisconsin folks have to figure out does it meet the strict requirements of the local level as well. So we’re going to convene and try to figure that all out,” Meyer said.

Michigan compact council delegate Grant Trigger lingered a moment as he wheeled his briefcase in the direction of home. He acknowledges many residents of his state did not support Waukesha’s request, yet Trigger stands firmly behind his vote.

“I think all of our stakeholders appreciate that Michigan treated them respectfully; we listened to them; we evaluated all the criteria. And in the end the result may have been something different than they wanted, but they have to respect how we went about it and that we believe that this is the right outcome,” Trigger said.

Scrutiny will surely continue.

Waukesha will now move through the Wisconsin DNR’s permitting process.

If challenges don’t get in the way, Waukesha could be drinking Lake Michigan water by 2018.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.