This US City’s Move to Divert Great Lakes Drinking Water Is Just the Beginning

It's the first request of its kind. More will come.

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Jun 22 2016, 6:05pm

Lake Michigan. Image: Andrew Seaman/Flickr

The drinking water of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is contaminated. On Tuesday, the suburban city won its 13-year-long-bid to divert water from the Great Lakes, by way of Lake Michigan, to appease its thirsty inhabitants. Environmentalists are worried the diversion will have a devastating impact on the lakes that so many people rely on—and critics say it could pave the way for similar requests.

It's just the beginning of what many worry will be growing fights over who has the right to clean drinking water from the Great Lakes.

A panel of representatives from eight states that sit alongside the Great Lakes voted unanimously on the decision. An existing compact meant that Waukesha, which is outside the Great Lakes watershed, had to get special permission for the diversion, becoming the first to challenge the compact in this way. (Ontario and Quebec both expressed concern over the plan, and Ontario conducted its own assessment, but neither had a final say in it.)

Mayor of Leamington, Ontario John Paterson expressed his concerns on Twitter.

"We have been really left behind in this whole process. We've been lied to," Racine, Wisconsin mayor John Dickert told local TV channel CBS 58, calling it a "disaster" for his city.

Waukesha has promised to return diverted water to the Great Lakes via the Root River after treating it, but environmentalists and some politicians are concerned about the oversight of the treatment process and the quality of water being returned. Dickert is apparently among them: the Root River runs through his community.

Environmental Defence, a Canadian non-profit, has been a vocal critic of the bid and expressed disappointment in the decision to Motherboard.

"The decision to permit Waukesha's diversion request is regrettable," campaign director Keith Brooks said in an email.

"The approval of this application could set a dangerous precedent that could lead to more diversions from the Lakes," he continued. "Let's hope that in approving Waukesha's request, the Regional body hasn't opened the floodgates."

Waukesha itself resides about 27 kilometers away from the Great Lakes watershed and, since 2003, has been under a court order to find a solution to the radium contamination of its groundwater wells. Its plan proposed diverting up to 10.1 million gallons per day of Basin water. (The city's water utility was not immediately available for an interview.)

"The Lakes hold about 20 per cent of the world's freshwater, but only a fraction, about one per cent, of that water is renewable," said Brooks. "If more water is taken than can be replenished, the Lakes will be drawn down, and we'll lose this vital ecosystem and a source of drinking water for millions of Canadians and Americans."

Waukesha, for its part, must be relieved that it will have a clean source of drinking water for its residents. But it's just one of many communities across Canada and the US—and around the world—that will be facing increased pressure to secure clean water, due to growing populations, urbanization, pollution and climate change. It seems a sure thing that more requests like this will come.