The Wisconsin DNR announced Tuesday that it is pushing Waukesha’s water application forward.
The City’s deep wells are increasingly tainted by cancer-causing radium, so the utility wants to start drawing water from Lake Michigan.
The DNR has now signed off on the diversion plan and will forward it to the other Great Lakes states. Final approval requires yes votes from all eight governors.
Peter Annin attended all three DNR public hearings last August as the agency carried out its charge to scrutinize every facet of Waukesha’s application.
Annin believes the other Great Lakes states will do the same. He wrote The Great Lakes Water Wars and understands the significance of the issue.
Waukesha’s application for Lake Michigan water is the first to test the Great Lakes Compact. It’s designed to protect the massive source of freshwater.
“Taking the water out from Oak Creek and then sending it back through the Root River, for those of us who attended the public hearing in Racine on the return flow, that was really the most contentious public hearing of all of them the DNR held last summer because there’s a lot of consternation in the Racine area about the return flow plan,” Annin says.
Critics insist the health of the Root River stands to suffer if Waukesha flushes millions of gallons of treated effluent through the river every day.
The river is not the closest return route to Lake Michigan - going through Milwaukee waterways would be more direct - but the two communities could not agree on a deal.
For instance, Milwaukee wanted assurances that the Waukesha would stick to its existing service area and also urged that affordable housing and regional transportation be folded into the plan.
Cheryl Nenn, with the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper, is part of a coalition that has steadily beat a drum of environmental concern.
“We’re already working with a lot of regional partners and other organizations in Great Lakes states to let them know about our concerns with the application and just giving them talking points that they can use to educate the public in their states and also the public officials who will be making the decision on this,” Nenn says.
Nenn insists Waukesha has other options for obtaining safe water for its residents, such as stiffer conservation measures, removing the radium from their deep wells and adding strategically placed shallow wells.
Nenn would rather not whisper “litigation” as a possible outcome, fearing it could unravel the intent of the Compact, and yet… "I think it’s probably pretty safe to say that someone is going to be upset here. If the diversion isn’t granted, Waukesha does have options to appeal a decision and on the flip side, I think a lot of environmental groups, both regional and local will look at that as well," Nenn says.
Christy Meyer hoped Waukesha’s application never left Wisconsin. She works with the Ohio Environmental Council and traveled to testify at a Wisconsin DNR hearing in Milwaukee last summer.
Meyer says Ohio and the other Great Lakes states contain many communities, that like Waukesha, are situated in counties straddling the basin and might want to tap into Great Lakes water.
"I think every Great Lakes governor, they’re feeling pressure from all different angles,” Meyer says.
Just a few days ago, Waukesha officials announced that their community’s deep aquifer is predicted to drop 200 feet over the next 50 years.
Mayor Shawn Reilly is glad that the next steps in the application process should occur early next year. In a release Tuesday, he stated, “We believe an unbiased and science based compact regional review will show our application should be approved.”
According to the Wisconsin DNR, it will forward the materials to the Great Lakes governors and two Canadian provinces within 60 days to set the review process into motion.