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Michigan's Process Regarding the Great Lakes Water Diversion Application by the City of Waukesha, Wisconsin

The Great Lakes Compact

The Great Lakes Compact is a 2008 federal agreement signed by the eight Great Lakes states and the two Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It prohibits new or increased diversions of water from the Great Lakes to areas outside the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin with provisions for the small number of straddling communities and those within straddling counties, which must first meet strict criteria to obtain approval. These criteria include conservation efforts, allotted water volume, and a 100 percent return flow requirement.

Background: The City of Waukesha’s Drinking Water Application

In January 2016, the City of Waukesha requested Lake Michigan water to address high levels of naturally-occurring radium (a carcinogen known to cause bone cancer and other health problems) present in its groundwater supply of drinking water. Waukesha lies within a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin, allowing it to apply for Lake Michigan water if it meets Compact standards. Waukesha is the first U.S. community in a straddling county to ask for a withdrawal of water out of the Great Lakes Basin under terms of the Compact.

Waukesha’s overstressed deep aquifer is currently pulling about 1.6 million gallons of water per day (or more than a half billion gallons per year) -- from the Great Lakes basin, based on analyses supported by the U.S. Geological Survey. This represents about 30 percent of the annual water pumped and is currently discharged by Waukesha into the Mississippi River Basin (not the Great Lakes Basin). If approved, this pre-existing diversion would cease by requiring Waukesha to return 100 percent the borrowed, treated water to Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes Basin could see a net volume benefit from approval of this withdrawal, provided conditions are met to ensure protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Michigan’s Process

Michigan’s review of the plan has involved evaluation by a collaborative team of subject experts organized by the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes (OGL), a thorough public engagement and comment process, and consultation with Michigan’s 12 federally-recognized Native American tribes. Michigan worked in conjunction with the other Great Lakes states and provinces to develop essential conditions to safeguard the Great Lakes and protect the health of Great Lakes citizens.

Conditions include:

  • Reducing the service area size by 47 percent.
  • Lowering the amount of the withdrawal from 10.1 million gallons per day (MGD), as originally requested, to 8.2 MGD.
  • Wisconsin must avoid adverse impacts to surface waters and wetlands in both the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River watersheds.
  • Cease extracting and dispersing radium-containing sludges into the environment.
  • Implement a recycling program for pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
  • Cease diverting water from Lake Michigan without return flow.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must regularly report on and enforce implementation of the conditions.

The Compact Council and its member states retain full ability to review and ensure adherence to implementation of conditions according to Compact Law.

On May 18, 2016, the Regional Body voted to advise the Council of its conditioned approval of the withdrawal.

The Compact Council voted to approve Waukesha's request with strict conditions on June 21, 2016.

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