"Waukesha's only option:" Plan to divert Lake Michigan water okayed by Great Lakes states

CHICAGO -- A council representing the eight Great Lakes states voted on Tuesday, June 21st to allow Waukesha unprecedented access to Lake Michigan as its drinking water source. It's a first step that comes with some huge relief for Waukesha officials.

Lake Michigan near North Beach in Racine

The city of 70,000 west of Milwaukee won unanimous approval Tuesday from eight states that are members of a regional compact designed to prevent water raids from afar.

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly

"Obviously, I'm very, very happy. This is something the City of Waukesha has worked on for a very, very long time," said Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly.

Waukesha is only 17 miles from Lake Michigan but lies just outside the Great Lakes basin. It needed unanimous approval from the compact states to draw water from the lake. Reilly said the application process began six years ago. Waukesha is only eligible for Great Lakes water because Waukesha County straddles the Great Lakes basin.

"This was Waukesha's only option in order to have a safe and sustainable source of water for its residents," Reilly said.

Lake Michigan in Racine

Waukesha's current water supply -- deep underground wells -- is contaminated with radium.

The Great Lakes Compact Council agrees with Waukesha but environmental groups like the Alliance of the Great Lakes see it differently.

"All along, we have thought Waukesha does have a reasonable alternative in terms of the ability to treat for radium. You can take radium out of drinking water," said Molly Flanagan with the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Lake Michigan

There are also concerns about the treated wastewater passing through the Root River on its way back to the lake. Officials with the Wisconsin DNR say there is no need to worry.

"I don't think anyone will be able to argue this wasn't gone through with fine-tooth combs and then again, and again, and again," said Cathy Stepp, Wisconsin DNR secretary.

Critics say they are pleased Minnesota and Michigan made an amendment emphasizing that other states have the authority to audit and enforce the compact in Waukesha.

"We have some strong concerns about Wisconsin’s willingness and ability to enforce environmental laws," said Ezra Meyer with Clean Wisconsin.

Another amendment reduces the amount of water Waukesha can take. Waukesha had originally requested the ability to draw an annual average of 10.1 million gallons per day. The council shrunk the area eligible for Lake Michigan water. As a result, Waukesha can now draw an annual average of 8.2 million gallons per day.

"The process is far from over," Meyer said,  "So the work for Wisconsin DNR, for Waukesha, and for folks like us, doesn't end today."

Mayor Reilly says Waukesha must now design a $207 million pipeline which will bring water in from Lake Michigan and discharge wastewater into the Root River. After that, Stepp says the project will require both state and federal permits.

"We will make sure bureaucracy is not in the way," Stepp said, "We’ll make sure to do our jobs and do them efficiently."

Flanagan says she is not worried the approval will open up the flood gates for other cities since they will see what Waukesha had to go through.

CLICK HERE to read the City of Waukesha Diversion Application

Lake Michigan in Racine

Mayor Reilly thanked the Great Lakes governors and their representatives -- and issued the following statement immediately following the approval:

"Today’s vote is an enormous accomplishment for the people of Waukesha, after more than a decade of work. The regional commitment to implementing the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact is also a victory for protecting this tremendous resource.

"The same states and provinces that authored the Compact, and who adopted laws to implement it, have determined that the Waukesha application meets the Compact’s standards for borrowing Great Lakes water. We greatly appreciate the good faith they showed in focusing on the facts and science of our application."

The Alliance for the Great Lakes and the National Wildlife Federation issued the following joint statement:

"While we need to review the details of the final decision, we are encouraged by the additional conditions placed on Waukesha’s diversion application that improved the request. It is also important to note that the water diverted from Lake Michigan to Waukesha will be returned to the Great Lakes basin, resulting in no net loss of water to the lakes as required by the Compact.

"We appreciate the seriousness with which members of the Great Lakes Regional Body and Compact Council undertook their responsibility to review Waukesha’s diversion application. While we have always believed that Waukesha has a reasonable water supply alternative, we understand that the Regional Body and Compact Council saw that issue differently.

"Today’s vote is not the end of the story. Great Lakes advocates will need to be vigilant in making sure that the city of Waukesha and the State of Wisconsin honor the terms of the agreement. We will be strong watchdogs to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected. We expect that the Compact Council and its members will act promptly if Waukesha and Wisconsin do not meet every requirement imposed by the Council. And, if necessary, we will take action to compel compliance with the Compact Council’s requirements.

"Moving forward, we strongly encourage the Regional Body and Compact Council to amend their processes to include improved opportunities for the public to participate in a meaningful and timely way throughout the regional review process no matter where they live."

Gov. Scott Walker issued the following statement:

"This is great news for the people who live and work in the Waukesha community. The application went through a rigorous 5-year review process, and we appreciate all the work our neighboring Great Lakes States and Provinces did to make the city of Waukesha’s application stronger."

Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) issued the following statement:

"This is an incredible opportunity for the City of Waukesha and its residents to ensure they have access to clean and safe drinking water. This long 13 year fight has been tough but worth it. I am thankful to have joined alongside Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, Waukesha Water Utility’s General Manager Dan Duchniak, Governor Scott Walker, several state legislators and many others to help ensure the Great Lakes Governors based their decision on science instead of misinformation and politics."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett issued this statement:

“My position has remained consistent throughout the Compact vetting process. The sale of water to Waukesha had to comply with the Great Lakes Compact.

Today’s vote by Great Lakes Governors reaffirms the integrity of the Great Lakes Compact. The amendments offered by Michigan and Minnesota, and accepted by all eight states, reaffirms and strengthens the definition of a straddling community and provides additional compliance and oversight; both necessary measures for passing such a precedent-setting agreement.”