State officials spar on plan to siphon Lake Mich. water

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

A fight has broken out in Michigan about whether a town in Wisconsin should be allowed to siphon drinking water from one of the Great Lakes.

The front line of the water battle is Waukesha, a city about 20 miles west of Milwaukee — which itself is located on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Waukesha officials have petitioned the neighboring states of Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois as well as two Canadian provinces for the right to withdraw as much as 8 million gallons of water a day from the third largest of the Great Lakes.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to decide this month how he will vote on the request that is before the governments of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Basin Council. Officials within the Snyder administration have defended the proposed diversion as a net gain of water for the lakes, but other high-profile state elected officials and environmental groups have opposed it.

“Gov. Snyder has not yet made a decision on how the state should vote in the final consideration of this proposal,” spokesman Ari Adler said. “He does believe any decision should be based on sound science and not emotion or politics.”

Fellow Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, who is running for Macomb County public works commissioner, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette have called for rejecting the Waukesha request, labeling it a bad precedent that threatens the region’s greatest finite asset.

“In my opinion, Waukesha has failed to meet the criteria required to receive water from the Great Lakes,” Miller said in a statement. “Diverting water from the Great Lakes should be a last resort only employed when every other means possible has been exhausted.”

But others, including Snyder environmental officials, argue the request would actually lead to more water returning to the Great Lakes Basin than before the proposed diversion.

“Allowing Waukesha ... to withdraw water from the Lake Michigan basin with the demand that it return 100 percent of that water back to the Lake Michigan basin aligns with the Compact’s mission to protect the Great Lakes,” said Jon Allan, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes within the state Department of Environmental Quality. “With that provision, Lake Michigan is made whole while Waukesha gets safe water.”

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’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.

U.S. Geological Service studies show Waukesha already pumps 30 percent of its water from deep wells that originate from the Great Lakes Basin, said Grant Trigger, Snyder’s former representative on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council.

“That water is then discharged into the Mississippi River Basin. At that rate we estimate over a half billion gallons of Great Lakes water is diverted to the Mississippi River every year,” he wrote in an email response to Detroit News questions. “If this request is approved that current diversion of Great Lakes water will be stopped.

“If this request is approved we stop an annual loss of over a half billion gallons of water from the Great Lakes Basin,” adds Trigger, who is currently Michigan clean-up manager for the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, overseeing redevelopment plans for former General Motors Co. sites.

Allan’s support of the proposed diversion has put him in the cross-hairs of environmental groups who described his argument as “an attempt to put a public relations spin on a bad decision.” In particular, they take issue with calculations on exactly how much water would be leaving the watershed should Waukesha switch from the aquifer to Lake Michigan.

“To argue, as Mr. Allen does, that the diversion should be permitted because some of the groundwater Waukesha is currently pumping may be connected to the Great Lakes is absurd,” Michigan and Wisconsin officials with the Sierra Club said in a statement. “It violates the basic premise of the Compact that a community must show they need to pump water out of the Great Lakes.

“This was intended to be a ‘high bar,’ but under Mr. Allan’s logic, any community that could make a claim that their groundwater is somehow connected to the lakes would be granted a permit. This is not what was intended.”

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