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Who’s waiting in line behind Waukesha to divert water from the Great Lakes?

Waukesha’s application for Great Lakes water is freighted with both a history of belligerence and future prospects of additional diversion attempts by other communities.

Peter Annin wrote that Waukesha – once a “water tourism” destination on the strength, especially, of its supposedly magical springs – gained a decades-old reputation for its “pugnacious, irascible and unreasonable” tactics when those natural resources dwindled from overuse.
Courtesy of Northland College

Second of two parts.

Though Waukesha would prefer that its bid for Lake Michigan water be decided only on its merits, its application under the Great Lakes Compact is freighted with both a history of belligerence and future prospects of additional diversion attempts – patterned on Waukesha’s if it succeeds – by other communities across the Great Lakes basin.

In “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” Peter Annin wrote that Waukesha – once a “water tourism” destination on the strength, especially, of its supposedly magical springs – gained a decades-old reputation for its “pugnacious, irascible and unreasonable” tactics when those natural resources dwindled from overuse.

Excerpts from his comments, lightly compressed, on these and other topics from our interview on Monday afternoon:

On Waukesha’s contentious history

Over time, because of groundwater pumping and development, the springs ran dry, then got paved over in some cases, and the city segued from water destination to water beggar.

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The groundwater got pumped down to a point where naturally occurring contaminants became concentrated – the most important of which was radium, which reached concentrations in the 1980s that brought federal pressure on Waukesha, and state pressure as well, to find an alternate water source.

Waukesha didn’t like that, they thought they were fine, so they sued the federal government, and lost, and continued for years to fight off and on, until the financial penalties became too great. Then they said they needed Great Lakes water but shouldn’t have to return it. And this went on and on.

But now, Waukesha has hired consultants – political, engineering, environmental – and they’re a kinder, gentler water applicant now. I think Waukesha has learned that you can’t just force the Great Lakes governors to give you water, you have to make your case, and you make your case by being diplomatic and playing by the rules, and that’s what they’re doing now. It’s interesting how Waukesha has changed its tone – not its tune, necessarily – but the tone of its approach.

But for the environmental advocates who remember those old days, it’s harder for them to see past all that to where we are today.

How many Waukeshas in the wings?

In September 2013, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental organization based in Chicago, did a report on that very issue and highlighted about eight or nine communities stretching from the Milwaukee area down to Fort Wayne, Indiana – Fort Wayne being the largest, at 200,000 to 300,000 people, of the potential straddling community applicants.

It’s quite well done and the only comprehensive analysis I’ve seen anybody do on that very important question.

On the politics of an earlier diversion veto

The only state that has ever vetoed a water diversion application – under a prior system to the Compact – is Michigan. Michigan opposed a diversion proposal by Lowell, Indiana, in the 1990s, when Evan Bayh was the governor of Indiana and John Engler was the governor of Michigan. So you had a conservative Republican in Michigan and a Democrat in Indiana; hard to know just what role that may have played.

Michigan calls itself the Great Lakes State, it’s the only state that touches four of the five Great Lakes, and 99 percent of its territory is inside the Great Lakes basin. For many years in the state of the state address the governors would go to the podium and say there’ll never be a drop of Great Lakes water diverted on my watch, and get a standing ovation.

The compact was supposed to get beyond that. It was a document that wanted to prevent long-range, large-scale diversions, but it also wanted to tee up a seasoned, mature discussion about exceptions for people who live on or near the rim of the Great Lakes watershed, who have a reasonable request to take water out, treat it to Clean Water Act standards, and send it back.

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The answer has always been a knee-jerk no. But it will be interesting to see, in the Waukesha case, whether the basin can get over that. I’m not saying that Waukesha should get water or not, just that I think some people have a gut reaction before they get into the nitty-gritty, and the nitty-gritty in Waukesha is super complicated and super controversial.

We have had another diversion approved since the compact was adopted in 2008: New Berlin, Wisconsin, suburb of Milwaukee, on the same naturally contaminated groundwater supply as Waukesha, covered by the straddling COMMUNITY clause of the compact, and in 2009 they had a two-million-gallon diversion proposal that went through, and was not controversial.

What about larger or long-distance diversions?

Because of the costs, I think that the era of new, long-range, large-scale water diversions in the United States is probably over. But the concern you’ll hear from some quarters is for unforeseen conditions, particularly with the onset of severe climate change:

What game-changing conditions could occur in the cost-benefit analysis of water diversion that might change that? Let’s run that rabbit for a little bit.

Why is water diversion so expensive? Well, the engineering is a big part of it, the pipelines or the canals or both. But the big expense is the cost of transport. There’s a report I cite in my book, by Jonathan Bulkley at the University of Michigan, who found that it would take seven new power plants just to lift water out of the western basin of Lake Superior and get it to Yankton, S.D., where it would then need to be canalled or pipelined to recharge the Ogallala aquifer.

So that’s a huge expense. But: What if renewable energy breakthroughs made the cost of lifting that water really cheap, at a time when huge swaths of the United States are going through droughts like California is going through right now?

That’s the kind of scenario that privately, sometimes publicly, some people in the Great Lakes wonder or worry about.

A bigger concern is that parts of individual states in the Great Lakes region might be where the problem arises.

Let’s just pick Indiana, a state that has a very small part of its territory in the Great Lakes basin, and doesn’t identify as much as a Great Lakes state as Michigan or Wisconsin or even Minnesota, and say it has a major drought or water crisis.

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I mean, forget about shipping water to Las Vegas – the concern is that a single state could break and run for the benefit of its own citizens within the state but outside the basin line, and that could be the crashing blow that cleaves the basin and starts a run on Great Lakes water because economic developers in other parched states say their citizens deserve that benefit as well.

I do believe we are leaving the Century of Oil and entering the Century of Water, when water will replace oil, in my opinion, as the most important natural resource in the world by the year 2100.

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Wednesday’s Part 1: Sorting out the key issues in Waukesha’s diversion campaign.