Waukesha and Great Lakes Water: Some Historical Background

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On June 21, the eight U.S. states touching the Great Lakes approved an application by Waukesha, Wisconsin to divert water from Lake Michigan. That may sound rather innocuous, but it is a big deal since the City of Waukesha lies outside the Great Lakes watershed. You see, basin residents have long feared that someone is coming for their water. After all, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence is the largest freshwater system in the world, with around 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, and about 85% of North America’s.

There have been a number of diversions out of these sweetwater seas since the start of the twentieth century. The first major diversion was the opening of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900. This reversed the Chicago River, withdrawing water from Lake Michigan and sending it eventually to the Mississippi. Done chiefly for public health reasons, it has been a bone of contention ever since. Other Great Lakes states, and Canada, have repeatedly voiced their opposition and challenged this diversion’s legality. Caps have been put on the diversion amounts over the years, but it has been essentially grandfathered into modern water governance mechanisms such as the Boundary Waters Treaty that created the International Joint Commission (IJC), as well as more contemporary agreements. There are a number of other smaller diversions, both intrabasin and interbasin (see image below). For instance, the Ogoki-Long Lac diversions, created in the 1940s, actually divert water into the Great Lakes basin.



As the technological ability to manipulate river systems and move large amounts of water increased in the post-WWII period, so did worries that arid regions of the United States might come for the water abundance of the Great Lakes. In the 1950s and 1960s, schemes to replumb the continent on a massive scale, such as the Great Recycling and North Development (GRAND) Canal and the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), were floated. These came to nothing, as the cost was prohibitive, plus anything that changed border water levels technically required the concurrence of both countries, either through a special agreement or through the IJC. But such proposals fed the paranoia of Great Lakes basin residents and politicians, as did other schemes in the following decades, such as sending water by pipeline to replenish the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Great Lakes Charter, a non-binding agreement adopted in 1985, provided the opportunity for basin-wide management and a means of saying “no” to diversions. It was buttressed by amendments the following year to the U.S. Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Any plan proposed in any Great Lakes state that involved major consumptive use or diversion had to give prior notice to, and seek the approval of, all the other Great Lakes states. However, serious doubts soon emerged about whether there were holes, legal and practical, in the Charter and WRDA, underlined by several applications for water by small communities close to, but not inside, the Great Lakes watershed (see Peter Annin’s The Great Lakes Water Wars for more detail). After a long series of studies and talks to replace the 1985 Charter and WRDA with something more legally watertight, excuse the pun, the binding Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was agreed to in 2005, and became law in 2008.

This is an interstate compact among the eight Great Lakes states. Since Canadian provinces can’t be a party to this type of American compact, it was accompanied by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, a non-binding convention which includes Ontario and Quebec. The titles of these new agreements are a mouthful, but together they ban new or increased water diversions out of the watershed, and allow no net loss of water to the basin. The involved states and provinces pledged to use a consistent standard to review proposed uses of Great Lakes water and a decision-support system to manage withdrawals. In addition, each state and province is to develop and implement a water conservation and efficiency program.

waukesha-water-art0-gbo14q8i2-11218gfx-waukesha-water-epsThere are some exceptions in the 2008 Compact; namely, counties or communities that straddle the water basin divide, and propose to use diverted water for public water supply purposes, can be approved under certain conditions. And that is where Waukesha comes in.

While the negotiations that led to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact were still ongoing, Waukesha (pop. 72,000) was exploring means of getting Great Lakes water for its municipal supply. The reason? Waukesha’s diminishing groundwater supply is contaminated with naturally-occurring radium, a carcinogen, and it is currently under a court order to rectify the situation. As the eastern portion of Waukesha County is in the Great Lakes basin, but the City of Waukesha is about 17 miles west of Lake Michigan and just outside of the watershed divide, Waukesha could apply under the 2008 Compact in the “straddling county” category. And it did so, becoming the first test case of the Compact since it came into effect. (The situation is also complicated by the fact that the groundwater underneath the community is partially connected to the Great Lakes watershed).

Waukesha’s application has been almost unanimously opposed by environmental groups, as well as by many politicians and citizens across the Great Lakes region. Critics contend that Waukesha is taking the cheapest and easiest route, rather than the most sustainable, and is not exploring reasonable alternatives such as treatment of its ground water or water recycling. It didn’t help that the city has, in the past, come across as belligerent and unwilling to consider returning diverted water back to the Great Lakes.

But yesterday, after months of deliberation, the Great Lakes governors approved Waukesha’s request. The city will be allowed to divert up to 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day — about two million gallons less than the city requested — provided that the water is appropriately treated and then returned to the Great Lakes basin, at a cost of millions of dollars. In approving Waukesha’s application, the parties to the compact made amendments giving themselves an oversight role, so that permission can be revoked if treatment standards and the like aren’t consistently met. It should also be noted that some environmental groups are mulling over a legal challenge to this approval.


Though I sympathize with their drinking water plight — I mean, who wants radium in their water — I counted among those vocally opposed to Waukesha’s application, worried that this diversion will set a dangerous precedent, both tangibly and symbolically. Given the multiple ecosystem services provided by Great Lakes water, there is essentially no surplus. And though I think the application should have been denied, I’m more optimistic now because of the promised oversight mechanisms, as well the return flow provisions. I also don’t think it is too likely that this recent approval will open up the floodgates to a plethora of water supplicants, considering how long Waukesha has been trying for the diversion and the costs it will face to make it happen.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was the product of a long and complicated history, some of which I’ve tried to highlight here. This historical evolution is important because it frames and informs contemporary and future water supply and governance challenges that will be faced in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.

With the 2008 Compact in place, the major threat to Great Lakes water supply isn’t likely to be the thirsty southwest building a pipeline, or water tankers headed to Asia. Rather, along with the impacts of climate change, I’m more worried about a  ‘death by a thousand cuts’ scenario. The major consumptive use of Great Lakes water remains irrigation, as water leaves the basin through evaporation and as part of agricultural products. Though the compact outlaws the export of water in containers over 20 liters (5.7 gallons), companies that send bottled water, pop, beer, and other drinks out of the basin could still cumulatively divert huge volumes of water in smaller jugs and bottles. (Based on their past behaviour, I certainly don’t trust the likes of Nestle, which produces bottled water in the basin, to be a good corporate steward).

And before Canadians descend into too much self-righteous indignation about Waukesha (don’t worry — I can say this because I’m Canadian), I’m much more worried about all the other dredging, damming, and hydraulic engineering that has been done by both countries in the basin for hydroelectric developments, navigation, and shoreline construction. Furthermore, we can lose water on a large scale when it becomes unusable because of pollution, plastics, and toxins, which has certainly been the case in the Great Lakes. When it comes to protecting Great Lakes water, perhaps we need to spend more time worrying about what goes on inside the Great Lakes basin, rather than outside of it.


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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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