Editorial: Waukesha agreement will protect Great Lakes

The Detroit News

Michigan has had its share of issues over the past year with Flint’s lead contaminated water supply. But now we’re in a position to help out a neighboring state struggling with its own contaminated supply — and we should.

Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, has been working on a bid to divert water from the Great Lakes Basin for several years because its groundwater is contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring element. But that request needed unanimous approval from eight Great Lakes’ governors, including Michigan’s, to go through.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday voted to approve the request, with amendments. It’s the right decision.

Although we opposed the Waukesha water diversion when it was initially proposed, we are persuaded by the argument that it’s better to return the water that is part of the Great Lakes watershed to the lake system instead of flushing it down the Mississippi River.

Waukesha is currently withdrawing 1.6 million gallons of Great Lakes water daily from the basin through wells and diverting it into the Mississippi River Basin. Under the new arrangement, the water will come directly from Lake Michigan and 100 percent will now be treated and restored to the lake. All Great Lakes states will be able to audit the community’s compliance, and environmental monitoring and mandatory reporting will be enforced.

The agreement also ensures a recycling program is in place for pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

Additionally, the agreement can be withdrawn by other states if at any point its conditions are violated.

In 2008, Michigan and the other states bordering Great Lakes formed the Great Lakes Compact, a federal law that prohibits water from being pumped beyond the basin. An exception, however, was made for communities that straddle the divide, which Waukesha County does.

The compact also established that any one governor could sink a request for water diversion.

To qualify for the compact exemption, a community must prove it has searched for, but doesn’t have, a reasonable alternative. It also must recycle treated water back into the Great Lakes after it’s used.

Opponents of Snyder’s decision, including Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell and Candice Miller and Attorney General Bill Schuette, say they fear Waukesha will create a dangerous precedent for other cities that lie outside the basin.

But Waukesha is a unique situation. Waukesha is just 17 miles from Lake Michigan, and Wisconsin and Michigan share the majority of Lake Michigan’s coastline.

Communities in states completely outside the Great Lakes Basin, such as Arizona or California, are still prohibited from withdrawing water. Drought-stricken areas requesting Great Lakes water has been a concern for the compact, but the Waukesha agreement will not open the door to that.

“This is something where I hope people take the time to look at the facts,” Snyder said.

Waukesha fits the requirements of the compact exemptions. This agreement will add water back to the lake system while protecting Wisconsin residents from contaminated water.