The Fight Over Who Gets Clean Drinking Water From the Great Lakes

One US town has contaminated water. Environmentalists and some Great Lakes communities say, you can’t have ours.
April 22, 2016, 7:30pm
Lake Michigan. Image: ckay/Flickr

The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water. They provide drinking water to some 40 million people—not to mention the support they give to local economies, through fishing, tourism, and transport.

With the combined threats of climate change and pollution, water is becoming an increasingly valuable, and scarce, commodity.

Now, a Wisconsin city that's strapped for drinking water is requesting the right to divert it from Lake Michigan. It says its own supply (which is drawn from local aquifers) is tainted with cancer-causing radium—three times the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA—and it's been getting worse year after year.

Representatives from Ontario, Quebec, and eight US states are in Chicago today, discussing their application. Critics say that a decision in favour of pulling drinking water from Lake Michigan will set a dangerous precedent. In the near future, as freshwater becomes scarcer, fights like this could become even more common.

Representatives are meeting in Chicago. Image: Roman Boed/Flickr

As early as 2003, it was becoming clear to officials in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee, that changes were needed to secure a viable water supply. But their wish to divert it from the Great Lakes faces a major hurdle: an agreement signed in 2008, by eight states, that aims to protect the lakes and ban diversion under most circumstances.

Waukesha's challenge of the Great Lakes Compact, as it's called, comes to a head with a bi-national review of its bid to tap into an increasingly precious resource.

On Thursday and Friday, Ontario, Quebec, and eight US states are meeting in Chicago to figure out what to do about Waukesha's application. It's the very last chance they'll have to weigh in before a final vote on their application, in May.

Waukesha is facing increasing pressure to find a clean source of drinking water. It's been court-ordered to comply with that EPA limit on radium by 2018.

It's because of this—as well as concerns that they'll need more and more drinking water, as communities around Waukesha grow and amalgamate—that the city submitted its request to tap into water from Lake Michigan.

"It's about upholding legal safeguards that will protect the balance of the Great Lakes ecosystem in the face of climate uncertainties"

"Waukesha, the Department of Natural Resources, as well as Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, all did extensive studies independent of one another," Dan Duchniak, general manager of Waukesha Water Utility, told me. "And all came to the conclusion that the only reasonable water supply for Waukesha is a Great Lakes supply."

Environmental groups disagree.

"The application is pretty weak in our view. It would set a bad precedent for all future applications," said Jacqueline Wilson of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

"There is a concern about watering down the compact agreement by accepting this application."

Toronto-based nonprofit Environmental Defence agrees, as Natalija Fisher, manager of its water program, told me.

"Diversions from the Great Lakes are prohibited, unless strict standards are met," she said. "We are concerned that Waukesha has not met those standards on several grounds."

According to Fisher, Waukesha has inflated the water demand by indicating a future rise that's out of step with the fact it's actually using less water today, and by including communities outside of the boundary and who haven't expressed need.

Lake Michigan. Water is an increasingly precious resource. Image: MrTinDC/Flickr

Duchniak completely disagrees. He says that, like other growing cities, Waukesha is just preparing for a future that will mean a greater demand.

Fisher and Wilson say that Waukesha should treat the water to get the radium contamination out, which is more cost effective than diverting it from the Great Lakes.

Duchniak says they've tried it, but it's not that simple.

"While I understand that other communities treat for radium—and Waukesha does also—when you look at the long term water supply, the environmental impacts associated with Waukesha continuing to use and treat for radium are significant," he told us.

He cites concerns over the impact of continued use of these aquifers on local wetlands.

He also points out that, as Waukesha's groundwater is connected to the Great Lakes watershed by permeable ground, they're already taking Great Lakes water—without putting any of it back. Under their application, they propose to return 100 per cent of diverted water to the Great Lakes basin by way of the Root River, which joins the city to Lake Michigan.

That doesn't soothe the environmentalists.

"Waukesha has not ensured that the integrity of the basin ecosystem is protected," Fisher of Environmental Defence told Motherboard, "including consideration of the return flow via the Root River, and climate uncertainties."

The main concern is that the approval of Waukesha's bid will damage the effectiveness of the compact agreement in the future, when water is in even greater demand.

"This decision is about more than the details of a single town's request to divert water," Fisher told me. "It's about upholding legal safeguards that will protect the balance of the Great Lakes ecosystem in the face of climate uncertainties and growing populations."

"Our application does not require a choice between protecting the Great Lakes and providing healthy and sustainable water for our families in the city of Waukesha," countered Duchniak. "The Great Lakes Compact ensures that we can do both."

Ontario completed its own review of the application, which found "deficiencies" in Waukesha's proposal as well, a spokesperson told Motherboard. Other groups, including First Nations and members of the public, have also expressed concern, she said. A report was submitted expressing this on March 22.

The Compact Council is expected to meet in a month or so, to discuss the application and make its decision.

Whatever happens in Waukesha, we can be sure—as climate change and pollution create new pressures in the US and Canada, and around the world, battles over clean drinking water will only become more common, and more volatile.

UPDATE: According to Wilson, who contacted Motherboard late in the afternoon on April 22, the regional body did not come to an immediate conclusion. They will be releasing their findings next week, and will hold two final days of meetings to make a decision on May 10 and 11. The Compact Council meeting will follow in June.