Meyer: In court, the battle for Lake Michigan rages on

George Meyer

Over the past five years, you may have heard about Waukesha, Wisconsin’s application to permanently divert water from Lake Michigan. The city’s application has dragged on for so long that it probably doesn’t seem newsworthy anymore. But now is the time to pay attention.

Waukesha’s application has huge implications for the entire Great Lakes region because it is the first application to divert water under the Great Lakes Compact, the federal law ratified in 2008 designed to protect our Great Lakes from water withdrawals to areas outside the Great Lakes Basin.

The decision on Waukesha’s application will set a precedent that either upholds these protections or allows many other out-of-basin diversions of Great Lakes water.

Unfortunately, Waukesha’s application ignores other reasonable alternatives to their proposed Great Lakes diversion. In its application, Waukesha is proposing to double the size of its water service area, contravening the standards of the Great Lakes Compact.

By including this expanded service area, Waukesha greatly inflates the amount of water it needs and tries to justify using Great Lakes water rather than local groundwater.

Unfortunately for Waukesha residents, the city’s Lake Michigan diversion plan also does so at extremely high cost to ratepayers. Waukesha Water Utility’s 2015 budget projects a $334 million cost for its proposed Great Lakes diversion, which will increase residential utility bills from around $260 per year to almost $900 per year by 2024.

As a coalition of conservation organizations, one of our top priorities is to ensure people have access to clean drinking water. Our response to Waukesha’s lack of effort in thoroughly and responsibly evaluating all of its water supply alternatives, as the Great Lakes Compact says it must, has been to incur our own costs to provide Waukesha and the Department of Natural Resources with an independent analysis, fully supported with well-vetted research and sound science.

The data is in and the conclusions are clear: Waukesha can sustainably meet its current and future water needs for its water service supply area by treating existing deep groundwater wells for radium and other contaminants, without depleting its groundwater supply.

The Great Lakes Compact was created to make sure water stays in the Great Lakes so it can continue to provide economic and recreational opportunities for our area for future generations. Waukesha’s diversion application is the first test of the Compact since it was ratified in 2008.

Waukesha Water Utility has stated many times it would like the decision concerning their proposed Great Lakes diversion to be based on sound science. Our coalition has provided the utility and the DNR with the opportunity to do just that.

Waukesha’s current application does not take the future needs of communities of Great Lakes cities into consideration. That is unacceptable.

George Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and was formerly the head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.