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With Minnesota abstaining, Waukesha's bid for Great Lakes water moves ahead

Waukesha's bid for Great Lakes water moves ahead
REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson
A single no vote by a governor is sufficient to reject Waukesha’s bid.

Waukesha has cleared the next-to-last major hurdle in its long campaign to divert drinking water from Lake Michigan, winning on Wednesday the nearly unanimous finding of 10 Great Lakes states and provinces that it deserves exemption from a general ban on water exports from the basin.

With Minnesota abstaining, because Gov. Mark Dayton wants more time to study their work and discuss it with stakeholders, designees of the eight governors and two premiers voted via conference call to send their review on for a final decision by the governors themselves in late June.

(The premiers of Ontario and Quebec have no role in that decision, which will be made under a U.S.-only compact signed by Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and in force since 2008.)

A single no vote by a governor is sufficient to reject Waukesha’s bid, and two gubernatorial designees made a special effort in yesterday morning’s call to discourage any assumptions that their bosses will necessarily see things the same way their deputies have.

Julie Ekman of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources said her abstention “should not be considered a negative reflection” on the findings themselves.

Grant Trigger of Michigan – the state often assumed most likely, for historical reasons, to oppose Waukesha’s request – said “it should not be presumed that this action indicates Michigan will approve”  the diversion next month:

Governor [Rick] Snyder will make a final determination only after all deliberations have been concluded, and after a final review and briefing on the final order when presented to the compact council at our meeting later in June.

Minor changes only

Only three minor, noncontroversial changes were made Wednesday to the draft finding as it stood last Wednesday when Ekman moved for a week’s delay in final action — again because Dayton’s office wanted more time to review the group’s work.

On Wisconsin’s motion, the map of the Waukesha water utility’s current service area was amended to include 36 residential lots where water lines have been installed but houses haven’t yet been built. Language governing the enforceability of conditions placed on Waukesha’s application were adjusted at two places, one at Trigger’s request and one at Ekman’s.

Ontario’s representative, Jason Travers, caused audible consternation by asking for a 10-minute recess as yesterday’s voting progressed, but he returned to the call in five and voted yes. At her turn, Ekman read this statement into the record:

Minnesota Governor Dayton and the MN Department of Natural Resources appreciate the hard work of the Regional Body in reviewing the proposal and developing the Declaration of Finding. We also appreciate the willingness of the Body in allowing a one week extension for us to further review and consider the Finding.

At this point, however, the Governor and MN DNR Commissioner are still consulting with stakeholders on the changes made to the Finding. While we very much appreciate your deference, MN must abstain from a recommendation at this point. This should not be considered a negative reflection of the Declaration of Finding. Thank you for your consideration.

No word on Dayton's views

As I said in this space on Tuesday, Dayton’s office has declined to specify any particular concerns he has about the panel’s work or conclusions. That stance continued on Wednesday, when press secretary Matt Swenson said he couldn’t discuss either the nature of Dayton’s concerns or the stakeholders being consulted.

I guess a governor can cast a yea or nay for any reason whatsoever, but in this case voting no would seem to require repudiating the review undertaken by the guvs’ own appointed technical experts, and their finding that Waukesha has in fact met the compact’s stringent requirements.

While largely accepting Waukesha’s case, and the supportive findings of a technical review by Wisconsin’s DNR, this panel has even added some justifications of its own – notably that if tapping Lake Michigan allows the city to stop drawing radium-tainted water from the wells that currently serve as its main supply, it can also avoid the problem of handling radium waste at its treatment plant.

Also, using logic I think can fairly be called questionable, that Waukesha’s situation is so unique that no significant precedent would be set by granting its request.

And the most important of the conditions it imposes – that the service area for Waukesha’s water utility remain essentially as is, rather than expanding by about 80 percent  – can only make its diversion bid more attractive to the compact governors.

So I put it to a leader in the environmentally minded anti-diversion coalition, Ezra Meyer of Clean Wisconsin: How do you make the case to the governors that they should reject the findings of their own designees and just say no to Waukesha?

His answer was both surprising and interesting, because it goes back to the most fundamental of the tests Waukesha has had to meet – that it has no other reasonable way to meet its water needs than to tap Lake Michigan.

How challengers will respond

By holding Waukesha to its current service area of about 20 square miles, Meyer says, and consequently reducing the city’s average daily draw from 10.1 million gallons to 8.5 million or less, the panel has also significantly scaled back the size of the alternative supply the city would require – essentially redefining the problem being solved.

We start from the reasonable water supply alternative, because that standard is the crucial threshold you’ve gotta meet, and this question: What is Waukesha’s next-best alternative?

The city has never directly answered that. It has dodged the question in all of its application submittals to date. And to me it’s the first question that the public and all onlookers and decision-makers on this deserve an answer to: If you can’t have the diversion, what would you have to do?

So we hired our own hydrogeology and water engineering experts to look into this, and our doing that pushed the DNR in Wisconsin to look at some different angles, to do some modeling around alternatives Waukesha hadn’t included in its application, and they arrived at a conclusion that’s virtually identical to ours:

Using their existing sources of water, and treating the radium as dozens of communities in Wisconsin do, as dozens in Minnesota do, Waukesha could meet its current needs.

Now the regional body has rallied around the idea of locking Waukesha into its current service boundaries, which we’ve been talking about since last summer, and by doing that you avoid needing to expand the volumes of water you deliver.

You avoid the need for a return flow [to the Great Lakes basin] through the Root River because the treated water would go down the Fox River, as it does now, to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. You also avoid, by the way, a situation in which a million gallons a day of Mississippi River basin water would be returned to the Great Lakes.

Meyer told me his group had forwarded comments along these lines to the designees group for consideration at its session this morning (and last week’s, too, for that matter). He confirmed that those were the comments the meeting’s chair, Jim Zehringer of Ohio, directed attendees to disregard at the start of yesterday’s call because the public-comment period closed on March 14.

At the moment, there is no place in the governors’ agenda for a further round of public comment before their June vote.

But that’s another place where chief executives can do as they please, so Meyer is hoping that these points can find their way to official consideration.

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