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Favorable review of Waukesha’s bid for Great Lakes water nears completion

In wake of review, governors from eight states, including Minnesota, will vote on precedent-setting move to tap the Great Lakes for a municipal system lying outside their basin. 

Waukesha pledges that 100 percent of the water would be treated and returned to Lake Michigan.
REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson

Tomorrow is likely to bring a critical decision on Waukesha’s bid to switch its drinking water intake from radium-tainted wells to Lake Michigan, following a late-stage delay requested by Minnesota’s governor for reasons that remain mysterious.

Mark Dayton is one of eight governors who must approve the Wisconsin city’s historic, and potentially precedent-setting move, to tap the Great Lakes for a municipal system lying outside their basin. (Last Wednesday, as the governors’ various designees thought they were wrapping up a set of findings on Waukesha’s application — for referral to the governors in advance of their vote next month — Dayton sent word that he wanted to delay that group’s final approval for a week.) 

Julie Ekman of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Dayton’s emissary to the meetings, told me on Monday that the Governor wanted more time to review the lastest version of the findings, but did not specify his particular concern.

Later, Dayton’s press secretary Matt Swenson told me that that the governor wanted to know more about some of the changes the group was making in Waukesha’s application, but wouldn’t be getting a briefing from his staff until today.

Few impediments, with fixes

Based on my own review of the designees’ work so far, and my conversation with Ekman, I think it’s fair to conclude there is little in the recommendations that will make diversion advocates feel sad about their chances.

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Most objections raised against the city’s application are found to be no impediment to approval, and even on the most contentious issue of all – a major expansion of the Waukesha water utility’s service area into areas now drawing water primarily from private wells – the designees’ preference for a rollback seems to be okeydokey with the utility and the city.

Before turning to the details, let’s review a few key technicalities and clear up a couple of bits of nomenclature.

Dayton and the other seven governors have to vote on the diversion because their states are members of the Great Lakes Compact, created in 2008 to control transfers of Great Lakes water outside the big lakes’ small basin. A single nay is sufficient to kill the proposal; views differ on whether abstentions are allowed and how they count.

Under the compact, communities that lie within the Great Lakes basin, or straddle the boundary line, are entitled to use the lakes for municipal water systems. Most cities outside the basin – like Waukesha – are not. Unless they happen to be in a county that straddles the boundary, as Waukesha County does. 

So location makes Waukesha eligible for “straddling county” consideration, but to win approval it must show that it needs the water to meet public needs; that it has no reasonable alternative source; that it has done what it can to mitigate its problem through conservation measures and such. Also, it has to treat most of the water uses and return it to the basin.

The membership of Ekman’s group, known as the Great Lakes Regional Body, also represents Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York—as well as Quebec and Ontario, which we are not part of the U.S.-only compact but are entitled to be heard.

Do not make the mistake with Ekman, as I’ve done twice, of referring carelessly to the group’s suggested modifications as something like “changes to Waukesha’s application,” because only Waukesha can change its application.

Conditions for approval

The regional body’s role is just to advise the governors on whether the application meets the requirements. However, on points where the application has been found at odds with the compact, the panel has elected to offer conditions by which the conflict can be resolved, which might strike you as sorta kinda like making changes.

By far the biggest of these conditions concerns the service-area expansion sought by the Waukesha water utility, from about 20 square miles to about 37, which Mayor Shawn Reilly and utility manager Dan Duchniak insist was forced upon them by Wisconsin’s DNR. (Opponents of their bid say Waukesha invited the mandate to help justify an expansion it had already decided to pursue.)

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The regional body found that holding the water utility’s service area to its present general size, just slightly bigger than the city limits, and adding new customers only in “islands” of currently unserved territory within the overall boundary, would pass muster.

This would also hold the city’s average daily draw to 8.5 million gallons, instead of the 10.1 contemplated if the service were extended throughout the expansion area over the next 25 years. (Which doesn’t matter, according to Reilly and Duchniak, because fully 100 percent of the water would be treated and returned to Lake Michigan – a pledge accepted by the regional body.)

“One of the things that kind of jumped out at most people,” Ekman said, “was whether that larger service area met the definition of community – ‘an incorporated town, city, or equivalent thereof.’ It’s that ‘equivalent thereof’’ language that’s subject to interpretation, and over many conversations the regional body wasn’t comfortable with the service area’s meeting that definition of community.”

I asked Ekman if she how Waukesha was taking the service-area restriction and she said with a chuckle, “Well, they haven’t pulled the application – so they’re not saying, no way.”

Waukesha accepts curbs

(According to Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel: “Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said he accepts the regional group’s recommended smaller diversion area as the only way to achieve a lake water supply for the city…. When asked if this would halt Waukesha’s growth at its current water service area boundaries, Reilly said: ‘It would set the boundary for the foreseeable future.’ “)

Also in the draft findings:

  • The regional body accepts Waukesha’s position that the deep aquifer it is now pumping as its primary source is in long-term decline, although some argue that it’s constantly fluctuating and may now be recovering.
  • The panel does not object to Waukesha’s highly controversial plan to return its water to Lake Michigan via the Root River at Racine, although it wants extensive monitoring of the impacts on the stream, which is already listed as impaired under federal water-quality standards.
  • It even endorses a benefit of the diversion project that I hadn’t heard the Waukesha side itself make before – avoiding a new problem of radium disposal under alternative treatment scenarios.

“A lot of the public comments were that other communities treat for radium, so they should, too,” Ekman said.  “Well, looking into things further, we didn’t find it desirable to bring radium to the surface because it’s a contaminant and you have to deal with it. It doesn’t just go away.”

  • As for the notion that approving Waukesha’s plan will set a precedent for other cities in other straddling counties, the regional body goes out of its way to throw cold water on those fears, saying its findings “are unique to this Applicant and Application and do not necessarily apply to any other.”

Among the “unique circumstances”: the city is under court order to meet standards for radium; its deep aquifer is situated in a way that restricts recharge; relying on shallow-groundwater supplies as an alternative could cause problems for wetlands and lakes in the area; the city has not only the capability to give back all the water it uses but really good systems for storm water, sewage and wastewater treatment.

A straddling aquifer

I learned in the course of our conversation that in addition to its situation in a straddling county, Waukesha’s deep aquifer underlies the Lake Michigan basin in places and the Mississippi River basin in others, and is recharged by groundwater from both. A straddling aquifer, I suppose you could call it.

Because Waukesha has been discharging wastewater towards the Mississippi, this means that at some level it has been conducting an inter-basin transfer of groundwater. That’s not important to the outcome of Waukesha’s application, Ekman assured me, but I mention it because I thought it interesting.

I asked Ekman if any issues brought to the regional body by its members remained unresolved and might prevent final action during tomorrow’s meeting, which will be held by webinar. She said there were none.

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The Great Lakes Regional Body’s draft findings can be read here; much more about the Waukesha application and review process, including a link to attend tomorrow’s public webinar, is here.

UPDATE: The third paragraph of this story was changed to more accurately reflect Julie Ekman’s characterization of Gov. Dayton’s request for a delay.