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Protecting Waukesha County's Natural Resourses since 1978



Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact

Version: August, 2005

Since 1978, the Waukesha County Environmental Action League (WEAL) has dedicated itself to the protection of Waukesha County’s and Southeastern Wisconsin's natural resources. As WEAL members, citizens, residents and individuals, we have strong environmental and personal interests in Great Lakes water issues, as well as in related water issues of groundwater supply and quality.

WEAL commends the Council of Great Lakes Governors for affirming its definition of the Great Lakes as a finite, natural resource, a unique ecosystem, and deserving of increased protections in the June 30, 2005 draft of “Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact” (“Annex 2001”).

Annex 2001 is an important and necessary document to clarify and strengthen Great Lakes protections. We appreciate the Council of Great Lakes Governors for bravely undertaking this enormous and complex task.

WEAL strongly opposes any effort to divert Lake Michigan or any other Great Lakes waters for use outside the water basin as defined in the Annex 2001. Diversion of Great Lakes water is neither a long-term nor sustainable solution to problems of quality or quantity for communities outside the drainage basin.

The ecosystem of the Great Lakes does not have any excess water to drain away without compromising its quality or health. (Research indicates that only 1% of the water in entire Great Lakes is renewed or replaced by rain and tributary inflow.) In fact, the Great Lakes ecosystem and water levels are strained by expanding in-basin uses created by development, industry and population growth, plus global warming impacts that decrease inflow while raising the temperature for the organisms and reactions that maintain the waters’ health.

The "Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact" draft of June 30, 2005, while supporting a ban on diversions, then provides for them under exemptions that allow communities and governmental units to make application for diversion. WEAL strongly opposes these exemptions.

While WEAL remains opposed to the idea of new diversions, we understand the difficult reality of maintaining a firm opposition in the face of increasingly creative ‘What If?” scenarios and constant legal challenges. So we address our comments to those specific portions of the Annex 2001 June 30, 2005 draft that offer exemptions to the ban on diversions.

Specifically, WEAL is concerned that the current draft’s exemptions to the ban on diversions are weakened by redefinition of terms and use of certain terminology:

  • We oppose the use of the term “straddling” because it imparts the idea that by stepping over something, one claims it for one’s own. The connotations of the term are not particularly accurate, either, for discussions of water access. We recommend, instead, the terms: “dual basin” or “mixed basin resources”. These terms more accurately describe those areas without access but adjoining those with access.
  • We also oppose use of the term “communities” as currently used in “straddling communities” because it does not accurately describe an entity that would be allowed to apply for a permit to divert. Entities making such application would necessarily be incorporated units of government such as municipalities, water utilities, or their Canadian equivalents. The term “community” connotes an area that is more encompassing, with shifting borders—that may not be legally definable. The use of this term would open the door for exceptions based upon broad interpretations.
  • We reject the idea that “straddling communities” should be allowed water access by virtue of the fact that they are “straddling” or contiguous to an area with access. Political and governmental units such as counties, or municipalities—those having a line boundary—are a purely human and abstract construct and should not be given a higher application—especially in discussions of natural resources—than the natural and common-sense boundaries as determined by gravity and topography.
  • WEAL supports the Annex in defining the lake basin by its surface water flow, or the surface boundary of the subcontinental divide. Redefinition of the terms basin, lake basin, and ecosystem by overlaying political boundaries (which can be subject to changing political pressures) creates opportunity for future redefinitions. Lake and river basins have never been based on any characteristic other than surface drainage. Scientific information about the deep aquifer and the confining units, such as the Maquoketa Shale layer, is sparse. Without sound science to indicate otherwise, the definition of the Great Lakes Basin must be based on topography, not on the hydrogeology of the groundwater. The revised Annex 2001 should retain its current, correct definition of lake basins.
  • Moving beyond terminology, we recommend that Annex 2001 be strengthened in the following areas:
  • Conservation measures must include definitions of terms, benchmarks for achievement, funding for agencies and staff to monitor compliance, legislative enforcement, and serious, deterrent, non-compliance penalties.
  • All in-basin users, as well as those applying from outside the basin, must adopt conservation measures. In-basin use will naturally increase along with growing populations. Recognition of the finite nature of the Great Lakes carries with it a responsibility to use the resource wisely. In-basin users must adopt conservation standards as rigorous as required by those outside the basin, avoiding legal challenges that outside-the-basin use may be a ‘higher, better use.”
  • The proposed new rules phase-in period of 5 years after approval is too long. Media coverage and public awareness of the issues surrounding the Annex will inform all entities that changes are coming. A shortened rules phase-in period of two years will prevent loopholes from being exploited between approval and implementation, or in the period prior to final approval.
  • Water withdrawal standards and time frames must include large users, such as agriculture and industry.
  • Of particular concern is exemption language exempting withdrawals of less than 20 liters from requirement compliance. We propose that total cumulative withdrawals be limited to the one percent of water that is renewed each year, less estimated evaporation and the non-returned “loss” amount from both in- and out-basin use. If current takings exceed that amount, permits would need to be denied, revoked, or modified.
  • Evaluation of the "cumulative" impacts of water withdrawals on local river and groundwater levels should be included.
  • Out-of-basin withdrawals must require an equal amount returned: treated, cleaned and improved, and at the same or cooler water temperature as the area from which it was withdrawn.
  • Prior to any diversions, full environmental impact studies must be done on the specific lake applied for, including how it would affect the entire Great lakes ecosystem. The research should be done by an entity chosen by the Council of Great Lakes Governors, and paid for by the applicant.
  • A water balance study of each Great Lake should be done: what percent comes from groundwater? How much from surface water? How much from each tributary source? What percent from under the Maquoketa confining unit?
  • Governments requesting diversions must present a land use plan with each application showing existing development and documenting its water use per location, along with planned or future developments, and their estimated water use. The plan should show open space protected or set aside for recharge and estimated recharge and quantities.

We believe these suggestions will further strengthen Annex 2001 in order to withstand the legal and political challenges sure to follow, while offering the protections the irreplaceable Great Lakes deserve.

Annex 2001 is a critical document because it affirms that these Great Lakes are a unique planetary treasure that must be protected for—and sometimes from—the human beings of the planet, and those US and Canadian citizens who depend upon it.

The protections it outlines must not be weakened.  

Especially for Waukesha:

Most of Waukesha County lies west of the subcontinental divide, outside the Lake Michigan basin. Because of quantity, quality, or both problems, some Waukesha County municipalities, as well as private and industrial users, are eyeing Lake Michigan water as a solution to their water needs.

WEAL members live, work, and raise their families in Waukesha County. We all want access to clean water for our homes, schools and businesses. WEAL recognizes that difficult or expensive alternatives to diverting Lake Michigan water may cause municipalities and other county users to seek water supplies elsewhere, such as rivers, lakes, and shallow aquifer groundwater.

Increased pumping of shallow aquifer water will create other problems —serious environmental problems of which WEAL is acutely aware. As the only countywide environmental organization to support the diversion ban, we publicly offer our support to the City of Waukesha, as well as other municipalities, townships, water utilities and the county government itself to find solutions to these complex issues. WEAL is willing to work with these governments and with the public at large, to research, educate, advocate, and support long-term plans that protect these finite resources and continue to provide healthy water for our residents and citizens. Waukesha is, after all, a “water-rich” county—without Lake Michigan water. Our water inheritance is vast, but still finite; we remain committed to finding ways to manage and use this wealth for the greater good without squandering our future on today.

written: August 2005