As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Tuesday held a press conference proclaiming the unanimous approval of the Great Lakes Compact members to allow the city of Waukesha to pump over eight million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan, a Northland College expert on Great Lake Water issues says that the action will have only a very limited impact on policies governing Great Lakes water withdrawals.
Peter Annin, Co-Director of the Northland College Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, said the event nevertheless was “an enormously historical event.”
Annin, who is also the author of “Great Lakes Water Wars,” which has been called the definitive work on the Great Lakes water diversion controversy, said Waukesha’s application to take water from Lake Michigan was the first test case of its kind on the Great Lakes since the Great Lakes Compact was approved by Congress in 2008.
“It was extraordinarily controversial throughout the Great Lakes,” he said of Waukesha’s application. “Environmental organizations were pretty unanimous in their opposition to the application. So was the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative.”
However, Annin said that reviewers of Waukesha’s application found in the end that as controversial and precedent-setting as it was, in their opinion the city met the letter of the law.
“A huge deciding factor for the Great Lakes States was the fact that Waukesha has agreed to return 100 percent of the water back to the Great Lakes basin,” he said.
He noted that another Wisconsin community, New Berlin, has applied to take water from Lake Michigan.
“That is a whole new can of worms,” he said, observing that like Waukesha, New Berlin has pledged to return 100 percent of the water they withdraw back to Lake Michigan.
“The compact has been very strict on that issue. Anybody who steps forward requesting a Great Lakes water diversion now has to agree to return that water, so there is no net loss to the Great Lakes watershed.
Annin said despite the disappointment many environmental organizations had about the approval of Waukesha’s application, their testimony was directly responsible for influencing the various Great Lakes States in forcing Waukesha to change key parts of their application.
“Waukesha had asked for a much larger diversion, 10.2 million gallons per day, they ended up with 8.2 million gallons per day,” he said. “They can’t go over that for the next 50 years and beyond. They dramatically reined in the service area that Waukesha wanted, which included sections of several neighboring communities. All that was cut. Those issues were first raised by environmental organizations in the Great Lakes region.
“As disappointed as many of them are, they had a huge influence on the process.”
Annin said he had just finished interviewing many of the project’s opponents on Tuesday.
“The one take-home message is, that for many of them, they do feel that the compact process has worked, in other words, their voices were heard, changes were made, and functionally, although not everyone is happy with the decision, people seemed overall fairly happy with the way the decision was made,” he said. “It was very transparent; the deliberations were open to the public. We were all sitting there, and watching as they edited and modified the requirements for Waukesha right before our eyes.”
Despite this, Annin said he believed there would be court challenges to the decision.
“It’s fascinating. From the beginning, Waukesha said they would file suit if it was denied, and environmental organizations said they would file suit if they were denied,” he said. “Everyone that I interviewed today is saying they are evaluating that decision.”
Annin said the mayor of Racine has been named as one who might file suit against the decision.
“There could be several lawsuits. There could be a joint lawsuit; there could be several lawsuits. That is really the next big question,” he said. “Was the threat just saber rattling on the part of the environmental community to sort of put heat on the negotiating process or were they really serious and do they plan to challenge this in court? That is the next big question.”
Annin said the entire debate over Waukesha’s efforts to obtain Lake Michigan water has been a confusing issue for the general public, but he asserted that the decision in favor of Waukesha’s application did not open the floodgates for future Great Lakes diversions.
“What people need to keep in mind is that unless you are a community that is right on the Great Lakes Basin line, or right near the Great Lakes Basin line, you can’t even request a Great Lakes water diversion,” he said. “What that means is any precedent that is being set here only relates to towns and cities that are right on the Great Lakes Basin line or right near it.
“In other words, this is not a potential yellow brick road to Las Vegas. The Compact brought down the guillotine on that when it was passed in 2008. It is just setting a precedent for communities on or near the Great Lakes basin line. If you are not on or near the Great Basin Line, then you don’t have a shot, and that would include places like Madison, or La Crosse. They couldn’t even request a Great Lakes Water diversion.”
While other communities surrounding the Great Lakes may or may not want to use Great Lakes water in the future, the example of Waukesha, which spent five years and millions of dollars to see their application through, is an indication of just how difficult the process will be for others to dip into the Great Lakes for their water supply.
“One thing is certain: Water rates are going way up in the city of Waukesha,” Annin said.
Coincidently Annin will be giving two regional presentations on the history of political maneuvering and water diversion schemes that have proposed sending Great Lakes water everywhere from Akron to Arizona — including the most recent proposal for the Waukesha diversion. The presentations are titled “Water Tension and the Great Lakes Compact,” and are set for Wednesday, June 29 at the Madeline Island Museum in LaPointe and Wednesday, July 5 at the Town of Bell Community Center in Cornucopia.
Both presentations begin at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public.