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Snyder, govs OK Waukesha to draw from Lake Michigan

Jonathan Oosting, and Jim Lynch

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder and other regional governors on Tuesday amended and unanimously approved a controversial plan that critics say sets a dangerous precedent by allowing the Wisconsin community of Waukesha to withdraw up to 8 million gallons of drinking water a day from Lake Michigan.

A Snyder representative voted for the Waukesha application Tuesday afternoon at a Great Lakes Compact meeting in Chicago after amendments Snyder said will strengthen audit provisions and enforceability of the agreement.

The plan to provide drinking water to the city, which lies 20 miles west of Milwaukee, has prompted opposition from a variety of sources — including conservation groups, state and federal lawmakers and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

But Snyder said he ultimately supported the proposal because Waukesha is already drawing more than a half-billion gallons a year out of the Great Lakes Basin through an deep underground aquifer that is now tainting the city’s tap water with radium.

“So right now, there’s essentially a diversion of water that has human safety issues and environmental concerns with it, and that’s not a good thing,” Snyder told The Detroit News in an interview ahead of the closely watched vote.

“This is a way to discontinue that and then the new source will have to be replaced back into the Great Lakes Basin after being appropriately treated. That, to me, is a better answer than what we have today.”

Critics of the plan have argued that allowing Waukesha to solve its drinking water dilemma by tapping the Great Lakes will set a precedent that fails to adequately protect the region’s greatest natural resource. It is the first such request made under the Great Lakes Compact, and it required approval from all eight regional governors to move forward.

Waukesha’s need for Lake Michigan water is driven by the depletion of an underground aquifer it has used for the past century. As demand has risen from development and an increased population, the water level in the aquifer has dropped to a level that has created problems for the city of 70,000.

The tap water now is tainted with radium, a contaminant linked with cancer, kidney problems and birth defects. For Waukesha officials, the solution is a $200 million pipeline running west to tie into the system of Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee. Originally, the plan called for withdrawing as much as 10 million gallons per day.

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly called Tuesday’s approval “an enormous accomplishment” for the city after more than a decade of work.

“The regional commitment to implementing the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact is also a victory for protecting this tremendous resource,” he said.

U.S. Reps. Candice Miller and Debbie Dingell said Tuesday’s vote creates a precedent that contradicts the goal of the Compact, which was ratified by Congress in 2008, and undermines water management progress that had been made.

“Waukesha has known about elevated radium levels in their water supply for decades and has failed to act. Now, taking the easy way out, they are asking to siphon water from Lake Michigan,” the Harrison Township Republican and Dearborn Democrat said in a joint statement. “The fact is, they do not meet the criteria required to divert water from the Great Lakes and have not exhausted all alternatives as required by the compact.”

Citing analysis conducted by a Wisconsin-based coalition of environmental groups — the Wisconsin Compact Implementation Coalition — Miller and Dingell argue Waukesha can “meet its own water needs by treating existing groundwater wells for radium just as neighboring communities currently do.”

Snyder downplayed Tuesday’s precedent, saying he believes Waukesha operated under the provisions of the Compact. Any future requests from other communities would be analyzed independently, he said.

The governor’s office said the final agreement requires Waukesha to return to Lake Michigan 100 percent of the water it “borrowed,” demands a pharmaceuticals and personal care products recycling program for the returned water and includes environmental monitoring with mandatory reporting.

Added enforcement language will also require the city to document the amount of water it withdraws and returns to Lake Michigan, allow other states to audit those records and to withdraw the agreement if any conditions are violated.

“The standards we’re putting in are very high, about returning the water, about making sure it’s been treated and cleaned appropriately, and also making sure there are good things to make sure there’s enforcement mechanisms to say that the permission to withdraw could be discontinued if there’s violations,” Snyder said.

But Miller and Dingell questioned those safeguards, pointing to the “inability to accurately monitor and limit the billions of gallons of water being diverted” through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal despite a consent decree issues by the Supreme Court.

“Since that decree was issued, subsequent inquires have uncovered diversion levels exceeding the agreed upon amount by nearly 15 percent as well as insufficiently slow accounting practices, seriously calling into question promises that we can enforce the return of water diverted by Waukesha,” they said.

Waukesha’s request was initially problematic because it sits just outside the recognized boundaries of the Great Lakes Basin. But the city was able to apply for a withdrawal because Waukesha County borders the basin.

“The Great Lakes Compact was specifically designed to prevent the diversion of water from the Great Lakes and approving this application is setting a bad precedent,” Schuette said in a statement.

The diversion approval comes as Flint residents continue to suffer through a lead water contamination crisis. Asked whether that crisis influenced his decision on Waukesha, Snyder said he’s working “very hard” to restore safe drinking water in Flint for both the short- and long-term.

“Waukesha obviously has a concern with radium, and this is a way to take care of that issue, because it’s not only a challenge for Waukesha, but having the radium in the general environment isn’t good for any of us,” Snyder said.

joosting@detroitnews.com