Tag: Waukesha Diversion Application

Press Statement: Today’s Approval of the Waukesha Diversion Application

On behalf of FLOW (For Love of Water), Jim Olson released the following statement regarding today’s decision on the Waukesha Diversion Application.

“For better or worse, the Compact governors’ decision approving Waukesha’s diversion is done. There were a number of loose provisions that pointed to a bad precedent where a community’s water system doesn’t even straddle the Basin divide. It will all depend on the details, the amendments and conditions made part of the decision.  This remains a serious matter and as we have done so far, FLOW will dig in and evaluate these conditions and make sure they are strictly interpreted and enforced.  When it comes to the Great Lakes and the duties of government to protect their integrity, there is no room for mistakes or relaxation.  It would have been better for the public to be able to see and comment on these amendments and conditions.  For the moment, all we can do is review them after the fact. The key to this and future decisions is to make sure they meet the standards for exceptions like Waukesha’s request as a community in a straddling county.  These standards are the beacons by which the Great Lakes will be protected from diversions and exports. They must burn bright and respected.  The public trust duty of the governors to protect the integrity of these waters from one generation to the next is first and foremost.”

Waukesha’s Proposed Exemption to the Great Lakes Compact Diversion Ban

Ask any ship captain or sailor along the shores of the Great Lakes, and they will tell you how important it is to follow the rules of navigation, including honoring those lighthouse beacons and green and red channel buoys. In short, boat captains must exercise utmost caution at all times. The same is true for the eight governors of the Great Lakes States under the Great Lakes Compact, which has a narrow exemption to the supposedly iron-clad ban on diversions out of the Basin. The Compact’s provision at issue exempts communities located in Counties that straddle the basin divide. It should also be remembered that the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are held in trust under both the Compact and the common law; what this means is that  the governments as trustees have a high, solemn duty to protect the integrity of these waters, ecosystems, and public uses dependent on them.

The City of Waukesha and its water service area sits entirely outside of the Basin; its proposal to divert water is allowed only because of the Compact’s exemption to the diversion ban, and a set of strict principles that like navigational beacons or buoys are intended to keep the Compact from collapsing on a reef of potentially bad and rocky precedents. When the final decision is made on June 21 or later on Waukesha’s proposed average of 8.1 million gallons a day (mgd), the Council and Regional Body must first and foremost concentrate on the paramount responsibility toward the waters of the Great Lakes Basin, the strength of the Compact, and the interests of citizens as beneficiaries of this public trust.  Like ship captains, the Council and Regional Body must exercise utmost caution, and steer the Compact away from any reefs, even if it means further tightening the parameters of  a proposed exemption like Waukesha.

On June, 21, 2016, the Great Lakes Compact Council and Regional Body are faced with an important decision on whether Waukesha, Wisconsin – a city located entirely outside of the basin near Milwaukee—can legally divert 8.1 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan. Given the Compact’s diversion ban and limited exemption for straddling communities, this decision is not just about the needs of Waukesha, but the precedential effect it will set for future demands for Great Lakes water in light of climate change impacts, increased competition, and greater worldwide water scarcity. By navigating within the strict standards of the Compact, the Council and Reginal Body can reach the right decision. To do this, the following standards and further modifications of Waukesha’s proposal  must be kept in mind:


  1. Straddling Community or County

 To qualify for an exemption to the Compact’s diversion ban, a community’s water system has to straddle the Basin surface drainage boundary or sit in a county that straddles the basin.  If it does not, it cannot divert water from the Great Lakes.  A community in a straddling county can request an exemption but only if they demonstrate a clear public need, no alternative, no significant cumulative environmental impacts, and provide at its cost fully transparent monitoring, inspection, enforcement, and strong conservation measures.


  1. Public Need

On June 11, 2016, the Council proposed reducing Waukesha’s original proposal from 10.1 mgd to an average of 8.1 mgd, or about 19 percent less, because approximately 2 mgd of the water would have served the future growth needs to the year 2050 in communities outside Waukesha’s territory and existing public water system that currently draws groundwater from the Mississippi Basin. However, the future growth and build-out 2050 goal of Waukesha raises a basic question of whether Waukesha’s proposal serves current public needs or its goals several decades in the future. This problem is compounded by the fact that the 8.1 mgd is an average; it can go much higher during at any given time. Can the straddling community exemption turn on such a loose application of public need? The Council and Regional Body should (1) cap the diversion at the 8.1 mgd, averaged over a 30-day period, in order to avoid large swings in diversions and discharge of return treated waste water into the waters of the basin, and (2) impose a condition that requires reevaluation of the public need and other factors every five (5) years to ensure that Waukesha does not look to the Great Lakes as its only source of water before and after 2050. The exemption for straddling communities was not intended to “subsidize” the growth and development of communities and water use outside the Basin.


  1. Showing of No Alternatives

 Generally an alternative exists if it is feasible and reasonably prudent. The burden rests with the straddling community. In this present case, Waukesha currently meets its daily needs of 6 mgd from groundwater within the Mississippi Basin.  A court ordered the city to treat its groundwater or find another water source because of unacceptable levels of radium contamination.  In the last 15 years, groundwater tables in the region outside the basin have been steadily rising.  Given this dynamic situation and the fact that Waukesha can either treat its water or divert its water from Lake Michigan, Waukesha has alternatives that do not require 8.1 mgd or more at times from Lake Michigan. Just because one alternative is more expensive than another is not enough to reject an alternative; the cost must be prohibitive or logistics seriously difficult.  If the alternative standard is not strictly applied, others in the future will justify requests for water under the same circumstances.  Waukesha’s court-ordered water supply fix possibly provides a distinction; however, is it enough where the problem could be addressed by various alternatives that while perhaps not the preferred alternative, are feasible and not extremely difficult? The upcoming June 21 record must show that Waukesha’s alternatives to use or treat groundwater within the Mississippi Basin or to supplement water from Lake Michigan are both cost prohibitive and severely difficult. Any weaker standards will signal others outside the Great Lakes Basin that the door is ajar and available for their water needs and demands.


  1. Monitoring Conservation, Diversion, and Return Flows

 Waukesha’s recent modification does not sufficiently describe critical details on how Waukesha’s proposal, if properly approved, would be monitored, transparent, and enforced.  And these are essential to the Council and Regional Body’s review on June 21. For example, the parameters for monitoring inflows from Lake Michigan, water use, return wastewater discharge, flows and levels of the Root River, and other key hydrological elements and effects are not specified.  It is also not clear who can and will enforce or who will pay for it. Waukesha’s proposal should not be approved without adding clear, transparent, and enforceable measures and conditions to assure that the standards and limits of the diversion are not violated. Without clear guidance, the diversion could become slippery slope that overtime could become a basis for other communities to argue a lack of overall concern in protecting the Compact’s ban on diversions.


  1. Waste Water Return Flow to Root River and Lake Michigan

 The Compact mandates a determination that there will be no significant impacts from an exemption for a straddling community diversion to the environment, including cumulative impacts. The record of the proposal to date emphasizes consideration of the impacts of the proposed diversion, but does little to support a finding that there will be no significant effects or impacts from the average of 8.1 mgd discharge of treated wastewater to the Root River that flows to Racine, Wisconsin and into Lake Michigan. Currently, wastewater from Waukesha’s sewage waste water is returned to water courses within the Mississippi Basin, with no effects on the waters of the Great Lakes.  The return flow requirement, which is a necessary condition to any diversion of Great Lakes water to a straddling community, could significantly increase flows and levels of the Root River and downstream communities like Racine.

Racine and the river and ecosystem are part of the waters of the Basin protected by the Compact as the Great Lakes themselves. A straddling community proposal like Waukesha’s must determine that there will be no significant direct and cumulative environmental impacts from return flows into waters of the Basin. The Compact covers all “waters of the Basin.” A smaller river or community, or land and adjacent ecosystems cannot be ignored or sacrificed any more than the Great Lakes. Waukesha’s proposal therefore should not be approved until it has been shown that the return treated waste water will not adversely and significantly affect and impact the river, its ecosystem, and downstream communities like Racine.  The Council and Regional Body should set a high bar for what must be shown to satisfy the impact standard; as described above, this should also include stringent baseline study, monitoring, accountability, and enforcement.

The Great Lakes Compact Council and Regional Body must exercise utmost caution in interpreting and applying the standards for any community to obtain approval of a diversion within the narrow straddling community exemption to the diversion ban.  Based on the Compact and common law principles, the Great Lakes and Basin waters are held by the states in trust.  As trustees, the states have a solemn duty to protect these waters and their private and public use and enjoyment.  This means that each standard in the Compact must be cautiously applied so that there is no room for misinterpretation or unintended bad precedent in the future that would weaken the Compact.  Just like ship captains, when it comes to the Great Lakes, there is no room for error.

FLOW Submits Comments on the Waukesha Diversion Application


FLOW Calls on Regional Body and Michigan Uphold Diversion Ban, to Reject Application

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Failing to meet strict standards or demonstrate a public need, a Wisconsin city’s precedent-setting request to divert as much as 16 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water outside the basin that drains back into the Great Lakes should be rejected by the Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the governors of all eight Great Lakes states, according to comments filed today by FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.

Permitting the city of Waukesha to remove Lake Michigan water could jeopardize the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement signed by all eight states and enacted into state and federal law in 2008 that bans nearly all diversions to safeguard and protect the integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin, FLOW said in comments submitted on the final day of Michigan’s public comment period on the diversion application.

“There is no surplus of water in the Great Lakes Basin to divert, and climate change and other factors have already pushed water levels and algal blooms to the limits,” said Jim Olson, President of FLOW and a renowned water rights attorney. “Based on our review and analysis, one problem with the request is that several communities outside the Basin in Waukesha County already have adequate water and don’t need it. The other problem is that the amount of water that would be diverted is based on indefinite and uncertain assumptions that at the end of the day are to support a build-out of sprawl and development in 2050.”

“The law is also clear, given the recognized public trust limitations on diversions and sale of water from the Great Lakes, that there must be a public purpose and need that enhances or is related to the protection of the public trust waters and uses in the Basin,” said Olson. “Waukesha’s application fails to satisfy the law.”

According to the Compact, this first-ever application for an exception to the diversion ban can proceed only with approval by all eight Great Lakes states, with input from the two neighboring Canadian provinces. Any state may veto the request. The governors have until March 14 to review the city of Waukesha’s application and will vote on May 23 in Chicago whether to approve or deny it at a meeting of the Great Lakes—St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council.

Waukesha is under a State of Wisconsin court order to address unacceptable levels of radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element and carcinogen, in its current groundwater supply of drinking water. Because Waukesha is located in a county that straddles the Great Lakes Basin, it may apply for an exception to divert water under the Great Lakes Compact.

According to FLOW’s comments, the city of Waukesha’s application submitted January 7, 2016, to divert 10 to 16 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan near Milwaukee to several Waukesha County communities that are located outside the Great Lake Basin, is deficient because it:

  1. Fails to meet the Great Lakes Compact’s “straddling counties” standard that allows a community outside the Great Lakes Basin to apply for a diversion if located in a county straddling the Basin. The proposed diversion to Waukesha is not just for the city or its current water supply, which is the “community within the straddling county.” Rather it is for a proposed public water supply based on the 2002 planning document for a sewage district service area. The city of Waukesha makes up only about one-half of the “service area,” which includes almost all of southeast Waukesha County, one third of the lower northeast, and parts of the northwest and southwest areas of the county. Any location within this service area may request water from Waukesha. The towns and rural areas are included because of Wisconsin law, and do not comply with the narrower language of the exception in the Compact. For example, the “public water supply service area” or “public sewer plan service area” managing or ownership entities are not a “community” such as a municipality or its “equivalent,” and, therefore, the water will not be used solely by the “community” within a straddling county, as the Compact requires.
  2. Fails to demonstrate a present public need, while wrongly taking into account future growth. There is no current plan for a public water supply system or demonstrated present need or showing of inadequate potable water in several towns and rural areas that have been added to the proposal. The service area submitted for the proposed exception in this case is based on a 14-year-old plan for a sewage waste system, and an 8-year-old water quality management plan for the sewage waste system. The sewage plan is based on Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission documents, which in turn are premised on future development or build-out by 2050. If Lake Michigan waters are diverted out of the Basin to spur future growth and development, other communities or others outside the Basin will demand equal treatment, imperiling the Great Lakes ecosystem. Moreover, as described above, the service area is based on an old sewage system service area plan, not water; and the sewage plan is speculative because it has not been funded or implemented.

“Under the Compact, there can be no exception to the diversion ban unless the communities truly straddle the boundary, lack adequate water, and demonstrate a clear current need,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, an environmental attorney. “There is nothing current about plans to build and grow communities 30 years from now.”

  1. Fails to show that there are no reasonable alternatives to diverting Great Lakes water. The Compact requires the city of Waukesha as the applicant to show that “there is no reasonable water supply alternative” to the diversion from Lake Michigan. Reasonable water supply alternatives, however, do exist for Waukesha’s proposed service area, even with the assumed full build-out. Generally all of the alternatives would provide treated potable water within an acceptable range of costs, safety and health regulations and impacts, especially taking into account local adjustments to minimize hydrological effects on wetlands and streams – without a loss or diversion of waters out of the Great Lakes Basin or negative precedence for future requests for diversions or challenges to the diversion ban itself.
  2. Fails to satisfy substantial limitations imposed by public trust and riparian law, which have significant implications for future transfers, diversions or the sale of water in the Great Lakes Basin.

FLOW’s comments submitted to MDEQ and the Regional Body on the application by the city of Waukesha to divert Great Lakes water are available for download here.

FLOW Submits Comments on Waukesha Diversion Application

FLOW filed formal comments with the  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources this week on the importance of strict review of a number of Wisconsin towns outside the Great Lakes basin that want permission to divert water from Lake Michigan to replace contaminated water supplies for one town, but foster growth and development for the others.  “The Great Lakes Compact diversion ban and exception for diversion of water to towns straddling the basin divide was not intended to grow towns and sprawl entirely outside the basin,” Jim Olson, President of FLOW, said.  Everyone must insist on a very strict, narrow application of the exception for diverting water to straddling communities.”


The report and comments filed by FLOW demonstrate that there must be a real public need, no other alternatives, and no violation of the public trust in the Great Lakes that protects the water and public protected uses like boating and fishing in the Basin.  The public trust in the Great Lakes limits diversion and use of water outside the basin for primarily non public trust and Great Lakes purposes.  Growth and development outside the basin is not a protected public trust use.  If these criteria are not carefully applied, the region could be in trouble because of a slippery slope that would open the door for diversions anywhere by undermining the hard-won justification for the diversion ban in the Compact.


“It’s a strong, defensible agreement, but we can’t interpret it carelessly,”  Olson said.


View the full comments here.