Posted on April 4, 2016 by David Ullrich
With increasing recognition of the value of water across the globe, in 2008 eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces established the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Management Agreement, and the states created a parallel compact on the U.S. side approved by the U.S. Congress. The primary purpose of the Agreement and Compact is to prohibit diversions of water outside the basin, with very limited exceptions. The first real application for an exception to the Agreement and Compact is under consideration by the Regional Body created under the Agreement and the Compact Council created under the Compact. This is receiving much attention and close scrutiny in the U.S. and Canada because many feel it will set the course for many future applications.
The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, sits just outside the basin in Waukesha County, which straddles the basin line. Waukesha has a problem: the aquifer it uses is contaminated with naturally occurring radium, and beyond that, the city has concerns about its capacity to serve future needs. As a result, Waukesha has applied for an exception to the Agreement and Compact to withdraw up to 10.1 million gallons per day from Lake Michigan, which would be used, treated, and returned to the Lake through the Root River.
Communities, like Waukesha, that are located in counties straddling the water divide line can ask for water diversions from the Great Lakes, governed by strict rules. The key provisions of the exception standard under the Compact and Agreement that Waukesha must meet are:
- The Water shall be used solely for the Public Water Supply Purposes of the Community within a Straddling County that is without adequate supplies of potable water;
- There is no reasonable water supply alternative within the basin in which the community is located, including conservation of existing water supplies;
- Caution shall be used in determining whether or not the Proposal meets the conditions for this Exception. This Exception should not be authorized unless it can be shown that it will not endanger the integrity of the Basin Ecosystem;
There is little dispute that the amount of water taken by Waukesha from Lake Michigan will have any impact on the Lake, especially since all of the water not consumed in Waukesha will be returned, with a small supplement of water from outside the basin to replace the consumed water. The concern is over the precedent it would set for straddling communities and counties all around the basin in Canada and the U.S. and the potential cumulative effect. The real question is whether these three portions of the exception standard are met.
The key word in the first standard noted above for review of the application is “Community,” which is defined in the Compact as “any incorporated city, town or the equivalent thereof, that is located outside the Basin but wholly within a County that lies partly within the Basin and that is not a Straddling Community.” Waukesha’s application indicates that the water will go to a “service area” that goes beyond the boundaries of the City to several towns and unincorporated areas in Waukesha County. They add that they are required by State law to provide water to the service area. Opponents of the application assert that a “service area” is not a “community” within the meaning of the Compact and on those grounds alone, should be denied. Waukesha asserts that the Compact contemplated the “service area” as a “community.” A definition this broad would open the door to areas well beyond the intent of the Compact’s limited exception to the prohibition of diversions.
In the second element of the exception standard, the availability of a “reasonable water supply alternative” is another consideration. Waukesha argues that treatment alternatives are not appropriate and that getting water from Lake Michigan is the best alternative. Opponents argue that there are reasonable alternatives, and that the nearby communities of Brookfield and Pewaukee are utilizing treatment for radium successfully now. They add that the standard is “reasonable,” and that it does not need to be the best alternative, even though treatment for radium may well be the best.
The third element of the standard highlighted is that the diversion will not endanger the integrity of the Basin Ecosystem. The return flow from Waukesha to Lake Michigan is through the Root River. Under the terms of the Compact, as well as State and Federal Law, the discharge must meet all the terms of a permit. Waukesha argues that this protects the Root River and will even improve it. Opponents say that the volume and thermal component, as well as unregulated contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, microbeads, phosphorus and others, will jeopardize the integrity of the Root River. In the summer months, the effluent from Waukesha could be up to 80% of the flow of the River.
Beyond the three elements of the exception standard, there is a question of precedent with this being the first application for an exception to the prohibition against diversions under the Compact and Agreement. Waukesha claims that it meets the exception standard, and that only other straddling communities and counties around the basin might benefit from approval. Opponents claim that the exception standard must be applied strictly because there are so many straddling counties and communities across the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that could qualify for exceptions. Furthermore, they argue that jurisdictions outside the straddling counties and communities will be watching closely for an opening to broaden the exceptions to the Compact.
The Regional Body of the eight states and two provinces will meet April 21 and 22, 2016 to make a recommendation on the application to the Compact Council consisting of just the eight states, which will meet in June. It will require a unanimous vote of the Compact Council to approve the application. The decision has implications well beyond Waukesha’s application, and could chart the course for future attempts to divert water from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence.