The Last Straw?

A controversial decision will allow a Wisconsin city to draw water out of Lake Michigan

Some believe that allowing Waukesha to take water from the Great Lakes is setting a dangerous precedent for the future, when water may be scarce in other parts of the country. (Comic by Leon Paul Hovanesian II)

Waukesha, Wisconsin, has a water problem. The deep wells of the state’s fourth largest city are tainted with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element. With a 2018 deadline to comply with federal drinking water standards, the city is scrambling to find a sustainable, long-term source of fresh water. A recent decision will allow the city to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan, but tapping into the Great Lakes system is complicated, both politically and ecologically.

For over a decade, Waukesha has been studying and petitioning to have the right to draw water from the lake, which is only 20 miles east of the city. Restricting the city’s access to the water is the Great Lakes Compact, a 2008 federal law that stipulates that in order to draw water from the lakes, a community must be in the Great Lakes watershed. Despite the city’s proximity to the lake, it sits just west of the Saint Lawrence River Divide, outside of the watershed.


What’s this chart? This article is part of a series—originally appearing in our Oct. 12 issue—that focuses on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. Here’s where this project stands—click here to see the rest! (AN)

Two governing bodies maintain the Great Lakes Compact: the Great Lakes Council in the United States and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Water Resources Regional Body in Canada. The councils, consisting of governors from eight states and two Canadian provinces, would have to unanimously approve the city’s request. After the initial application in 2010, the council and city negotiated for six years, until the councils finally approved the request this June. The approval is based on the fact that the City of Waukesha is in a county that straddles the divide and the city’s aquifers are already partially naturally replenished from within the Great Lakes watershed. The decision also requires the city to return an equal amount of clean, treated water to the lake as it draws out. Not everyone is pleased with the decision though, and legal action is already pending.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSL Cities Initiative) has issued a formal appeal to the Compact members to reverse the decision. The GLSL Cities Initiative is comprised of over 120 Great Lakes region city mayors, and it feels that a dangerous precedent is being set by allowing water to be taken from the lakes. It is also critical of the lack of transparency in the process of approval, which it says did not involve enough input from the public or local governments. The initiative has also written to U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the International Joint Commission, claiming the decision “exceeds the scope of authority granted in the Compact.”

As it stands the Waukesha has begun the permit process to build a $207-million system of pipelines to draw and return water to the lake. The water would not come directly from the lake, but from a town near the lake. Water would be returned by way of the Lake Michigan tributary Root River.

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