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Wisconsin city seeks to draw millions of gallons from Lake Michigan

The final step in a Wisconsin city’s quest to siphon off 8.3 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day as a replacement for tainted groundwater may occur in less than two weeks, when a regional council representing eight Great Lakes states meets in Chicago to review the proposal.

The city of Waukesha’s application – the first such request since the signing of a landmark Great Lakes management agreement in 2008 – gained a preliminary okay last month from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body, which consists of representatives of eight U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The Regional Body, however, did scale down the water diversion request before sending it to the so-called Compact Council for a vote on final approval on June 21.

In the final weeks before the expected decision, environmentalists and lawmakers have been lobbying the governors to reject the water diversion proposal, arguing that the plan poses environmental hazards for a region known as the largest source of surface fresh water in the world.

Among the governors being lobbied is Michigan’s Rick Snyder, who has faced a storm of criticism over the local water pollution crisis in Flint. Snyder’s communications director, Ari Adler, told AMI Newswire Wednesday that the governor has not yet made a decision on the water diversion vote.

“When he does, it will be based on a thorough review of the science behind the discussion rather than politics or emotions,” Adler said. “That’s why it is taking more time for him to reach a decision on this issue.”

Dan Duchniak, general manager of Waukesha’s water utility, told public radio station WKAR in Michigan on Tuesday that his city’s limited groundwater aquifers are now showing signs of contamination with radium, a carcinogen, and that the city of more than 70,000 has no choice but to find an alternative source of drinking water.

Environmentalists, however, fear that establishing a precedent with the Waukesha diversion could lead to diversion requests from other cities and create a trend that will impair the health of the Great Lakes, which have difficulty replenishing themselves.

Molly Flanagan, a vice president for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, told AMI Newswire Wednesday that support for Waukesha’s plans is hard to find outside the city. She noted that public comments on the diversion plan filed over the winter were overwhelmingly negative.

Flanagan said that her group and other environmental organizations are not opposed to all water diversions, but they want to make sure that if Waukesha’s plan is approved, it meets all the criteria outlined in the 2008 Great Lakes agreement.

“The Regional Body did several things to improve the water diversion request,” she said. “But we think there is more work to be done by the Compact Council.”

According to Duchniak, 30 percent of the water the city is now pumping from aquifers would otherwise flow into Lake Michigan. Under the new plan, that pumping would stop, allowing more of the water in the aquifers to reach Lake Michigan. In addition, all of the water to be diverted from the lake in the future would eventually be returned to the lake as treated wastewater.

Flanagan said the discharge of treated wastewater, which would be done through the Root River, is a big concern. The nitrogen and phosphorus content of the lake’s water would likely go up, she said, and trace contaminants would add to the pollutants.

Flanagan also said she would like to see assurances that the state of Wisconsin has the authority to enforce further conditions that the Compact Council may place on the city’s application.

In addition, environmentalists are looking to Minnesota to provide leadership in ensuring that high standards will prevail in any water diversion. Minnesota abstained in the Regional Body’s vote on the water diversion in May.

Duchniak said the negative feelings about the diversion were generated by a misleading campaign orchestrated by opponents.

“Critics of our project engaged in an extensive media and social media campaign of misleading statements that was intended to raise false fears of that proposal,” he said.

A letter to the Great Lakes governors signed by Michigan Reps. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) and Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), as well as nine other Congress members from Michigan, opposes that water diversion request. The lawmakers argue that Waukesha has options other than a diversion from Lake Michigan for safe drinking water.