Why Waukesha’s thirst for Great Lakes water is raising alarms on both sides of the border
Waukesha, Wisconsin, is running out of water. So it wants a pipeline to divert millions of gallons a day from Lake Michigan
By Mitch Potter Toronto Star Jul 08 2013
WAUKESHA, WIS.—Pour a bucket of water over this fretfully thirsty stretch of Wisconsin and gravity takes over, pulling it southwest, down the Mississippi River and, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Pull a bucket of water from underground and the real problem arrives: the city of Waukesha is getting down to the dregs of its deep aquifer. And those depleted waters are laced with rising concentrations of cancer-causing radium. Illegal levels, in fact, according to Washington.
Waukesha needs a water makeover. Soon.
And now the part about why Canadians should care. Later this month, Waukesha will put the finishing touches on its Big Ask — a watershed-hopping scheme to build a pipeline so that its 70,000 people can drink safely from the Great Lakes forever more.
Once all the bureaucratic Ts and Is are crossed and dotted, Waukesha will sit down ladle in hand with all the Great Lakes states and provinces, including Ontario, to make its case for a diversion of 9 million (imperial) gallons a day from Lake Michigan.
The Waukesha crisis isn’t just about Waukesha — it’s a test case for the regulatory beast known as the Great Lakes Compact, a legally binding agreement signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008 but never before faced with a request to divert water beyond the subcontinental divide.
In the grander scheme, that makes it a test case for North America’s coming climate travails, riveting attention on just how precious these five lakes, which together comprise 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater, really are.
To put it simply, Canada opposes transferring water from one watershed to another. Saying yes to Waukesha is one thing, but who asks next? Las Vegas?
It’s the precedent that has Canadian officials watching closely, a point Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer made in March during a visit to Milwaukee.
“The goal is to recycle the water to a high quality, sustainably, with no impact on lake levels. The lake matters as much to me as anyone.”
With Lake Michigan and Lake Huron approaching historic lows, Doer sounded caution over Waukesha, saying, “today’s project may make sense, but 100 of them won’t.”
The man in the eye of Waukesha’s water storm is Dan Duchniak, an engineer by trade, a Milwaukee native by birth, a self-professed lifelong lover of the Great Lakes. For the past decade, as general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, he’s made it his mission to find a long-term answer that will make Waukesha, Wisconsin’s neighbouring states — and Canada — happy.
During a day of interviews and on-site tours of Waukesha’s water woes, bad luck is the emerging story, both geographically and geologically. Waukesha’s radium crisis is natural, not man-made. The toxic isotopes just come with the territory and many city residents shrug off the danger, saying, “I’ve been drinking it all my life and I’m fine.”
But as the city’s deep aquifer depletes, Waukesha is drawing radium in higher concentrations — sometimes more than 15 parts per million, or three times the U.S. limit. A life born today, many fear, won’t fare so well after decades of consuming Waukesha water, if the Great Lakes players deny their application.
Adding insult to injury is unfortunate geography. Yes, Waukesha is on the Mississippi side of the subcontinental divide. But the city’s easternmost limits are just two kilometres from the Great Lakes watershed.
“We are so, so close we can almost taste it,” says Duchniak. “If Waukesha were a mile and a half closer to Lake Michigan, we wouldn’t have this problem. We’d have a much simpler claim.”
Ontario and the other Great Lakes stakeholders won’t see the city’s diversion application until January. But Duchniak provided the Star with a comprehensive preview of what’s to come. On the surface, the arguments go as follows:
“We propose to build not one but two pipelines — one to take and use Lake Michigan water and a second parallel to return the water back to Lake Michigan (minus a 15 per cent consumption loss, as outlined in the Great Lakes Compact),” he said.
“The goal is to recycle the water to a high quality, sustainably, with no impact on lake levels. The lake matters as much to me as anyone. I grew up on it. I understand the worries. I’m worried, too. And that’s why we want to set the bar incredibly high, creating an important precedent that puts the Great Lakes Compact on solid legal ground. Anyone who comes after us will have an immense challenge, and the standard will be full return of the lake water.”
An added benefit, Duchniak says, is that Waukesha’s plan is to feed the return pipe into the Root River, just south of Milwaukee, which has suffered from decades of low flow in summer and fall. The additional water, said Duchniak, will improve the Root watershed and also augment the flow, providing a lifeline for a Wisconsin state fish hatchery that has been left high and dry in recent years, unable to harvest its bounty of Michigan-bound rainbow trout fry.
“I consider myself an environmentalist. We have spent the past three years working intensely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources trying to perfect this application on the basis of the best available science,” said Duchniak.
“We believe we’re there now. I’m very confident we’re going to win approval. And I’m confident approval for Waukesha is going to elevate the Great Lake Compact as the best line of defence to ensure protection of the lakes.”
As test cases go, all this talk of the Great Lakes Compact comes with an important qualifier. It is, technically and legally, a U.S. agreement, codified by a 2008 Act of Congress, ensuring that the eight states that touch the basin’s shorelines — Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Indiana and Minnesota — can, among other things, veto each other’s water requests.
Ontario, which sprawls across the northern shorelines of four of the five lakes, all but dwarfing the territories of the eight states to the south, gets a seat at the table. The province is more than an observer but less than a full player, entitled to submit scientific opinion but not wielding the clear-cut right to say no. It’s the same for Quebec, which is a stakeholder by dint of its St. Lawrence River territories.
That’s because neither states nor provinces are able to sign international agreements. On the Canadian side, the provinces and Ottawa have worked out their own legislation to match up with the compact, under the unwieldy name of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement.
“It gets slightly strange during the meetings,” says Eric Boysen, director of the Great Lakes branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
“The provinces sit down with the states as partners in ‘The Agreement’ but then Ontario and Quebec have to get up and leave the room so ‘The Compact’ can meet. By U.S. law, we on the Canadian side just aren’t part of that.”
At face value, Canadian regulators seem enfeebled by the equation of holding the only veto-less seats. Yet the devil — Canada’s advantage, actually — is in the details.
Canadian government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Great Lakes politics, remind the Star that the compact, as a U.S. law, doesn’t clarify anything for Canada. They see it as little more than a “memorandum of understanding” — albeit an unusual one, given the clout it provides on the American side.
If either Ontario or Quebec has objections to the Waukesha application or any others that follow, Ottawa has the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to fall back on, together with the binational International Joint Commission that grew from it.
In the meantime, both Ottawa and the Canadian Embassy in Washington are watching closely as the Waukesha application unfolds. Because the compact may yet prove itself a robust first line of defence against those who might covet Great Lakes water in the years to come.
“Think of it this way: getting a water diversion under the compact makes Canadian Senate reform seem easy,” said one Canadian observer familiar with the emerging regulatory politics.
“Eight states, each one sworn to protect and conserve the Great Lakes, all have a legal veto on any other American entity wanting to get at that water. And the standard is science, focusing on improving the quality and quantity of the Great Lakes ecosystem. The compact is a promising new tool, but not the only one, from Canada’s point of view.”
In the context of already low lake levels — and the deepening water crises in the American southwest — most of the Great Lakes stakeholders are mindful of rising public anxieties.
“Fears and paranoia are reasonable given the future of water as an increasingly valuable commodity,” said Tim Elder, executive director of the U.S.-based Great Lakes Commission.
“However, the compact provides the best defence that all of us in the Great Lakes region could hope for,” because there is no way to weaken it without another act of Congress, he said.
“That’s why it is vital that all of us in the region, U.S. and Canadian alike, continue to be good stewards of our water here, and remain vigilant with regard to future threats.”
The question of Great Lakes diversions has always been messy. And it’s getting messier still, with the discovery four years ago of invasive Asian carp at the very mouth of the massive Chicago Area Waterway System, the controversial canal link that transcends watersheds, bridging the Great Lakes with the Mississippi.
Great Lakes watchers were heartened in June when Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, facing lawsuits from neighbouring states over the pathway for carp moving north and threatening the Great Lakes fishery, did a sudden about-face.
“Ultimately, I think we have to separate the basins,” Quinn told a meeting of the Council of Great Lakes Governors on Mackinac Island. “I really feel that is the ultimate solution.”
If Quinn can find the money — solutions for disconnecting the Mississippi/Great Lakes link are estimated at upwards of $4 billion — such a move would end tensions dating to 1848, when the original canal was carved. Until then, Chicago will continue to draw as much as 1.7 billion gallons a day from the Great Lakes, which it uses to wash lightly treated sewage and barge traffic downstream.
The Chicago diversion is a century-old irritant for Canada, the subject of diplomatic objections that date to a time when Ottawa, at the semi-sovereign turn of the 20th century, had to complain to London to be heard in Washington. It is the primary reason the Boundary Waters Treaty came to be.
The outflow at Chicago once lowered lake levels downstream (Erie and Ontario) by as much as 15 centimetres. But that impact has been offset since the 1940s by Ontario’s immense Long Lac and Ogoki diversions, which rerouted vast quantities of water from the James Bay watershed into Lake Superior.
Such vast manipulations of flow between watersheds are unthinkable today — and they dwarf Waukesha’s comparatively modest request. The other thing Waukesha has going for it is that, while the city itself lies on the Mississippi side, the county it sits in straddles the watershed divide. There is specific language in the compact that gives consideration, under strict conditions, to requests from dwellers in straddling counties.
Oh, and one more thing everyone in Waukesha is quick to tell you. This is the home of the late, great Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar. A point of pride that Waukesha wears on its sleeve these days, with guitar statues throughout its downtown, a new marketing nickname of “Guitar Town,” and the newly opened permanent Les Paul exhibit at the town museum. How can you not spare a few drops of water for the town that made rock ’n’ roll possible?
Ontario, for its part, awaits the Waukesha application with curiosity, vowing a science-first response.
“Ontario is sitting in a pretty fortunate place when it comes to water,” said Boysen.
“But all that matters now is responsible management and using science to get a much better handle on everything from invasive species to climate impacts.
“That includes getting a handle on winter evaporation, and how much the lower lake levels are linked to the fact that they have not been freezing as much over the last 25 to 30 years as they did in the past.
“Those are the principals that everyone on both sides of the border is bringing to the Waukesha bid. Being as respectful of water quality and quantity as we possibly can be.”
Ontario’s Ottawa counterparts vow they will continue to stand on guard for thee. The fact that inter-basin water transfers now are opposed by all levels of government on both sides of the border does not mean the idea doesn’t arise from time to time.
One especially ludicrous example relayed by a senior Canadian official happened just last year, when a U.S. lobbyist came knocking to awaken interest in the 1950s-era scheme called NAWAPA , envisioning a gargantuan diversion of water from the Arctic to California, replete with a trench through British Columbia.
The Canadians turned the lobbyist away. But it reminded them that, when it comes to water in the 21st century, every bet must be hedged. You just never know.