U.S. city defends plan to draw water from Great Lakes in face of opposition

U.S. city defends plan to pipe Great Lakes water

TORONTO — An American city is defending its plan to draw water from the Great Lakes, saying Canadian and U.S. mayors trying to block the move should be ignored.

The Wisconsin city of Waukesha argues a decision last year that gave it permission to pipe water from Lake Michigan was error-free, protects the environment and does not need to be revisited in any way.

The city of 70,000 had asked to take water from the Great Lakes because its own aquifer is running low and the water is contaminated with high levels of naturally occurring cancer-causing radium.

It argued that although it’s located outside the boundary of the Great Lakes basin, it is part of a county straddling that geographical line and should be allowed access to the lake’s water.

The request created significant concern on both sides of the border, with critics arguing Waukesha’s plan could open the floodgates to other communities seeking Great Lakes access when they face water shortages.

In June, the eight states adjoining the Great Lakes that had final say on the matter after input from Ontario and Quebec, gave Waukesha’s plan the green light, making it the first exception to an agreement banning diversions of water away from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.

But in August, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which represents more than 100 local governments on both sides of the border, challenged that decision, saying it set a dangerous precedent.

Waukesha is now pushing back in a detailed submission to the group of eight states — known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact Council.

“The final decision ensures protection of the Great Lakes and the environment as a whole,” it said. “To the extent there is a precedent here, it is a very conservative precedent.”

Waukesha explained that the council’s decision requires 100 per cent of the water drawn by the city from the Great Lakes to be returned, limits the water diversion to a specific area and imposes strict requirements on the quality of the return flow.

“If there is no net water loss from this diversion and this sets the precedent, then there should be no water losses in the future even if there are more diversions,” it said.

Waukesha also notes that it began looking for a safe and sustainable drinking water supply more than a decade ago and evaluated 14 alternatives before concluding that water taken from Lake Michigan would be the only safe, reliable and sustainable long-term solution.

The Cities Initiative argues, however, that the area to be serviced by Waukesha’s diversion is too large, the return flow of treated water to Lake Michigan hasn’t been analysed enough and there wasn’t enough public participation in the process dealing with the city’s request.

Waukesha said the Cities Initiative simply disagrees with the council’s final decision but has offered nothing to warrant a reversal.

“The real concern here is that Waukesha needs a safe, reliable and sustainable drinking water for its residents,” it said. “The Cities Initiative has identified no errors either in the council’s procedures or decision making that warrant reversal.”

The Great Lakes support 33 million people, including nine million Canadians and eight of Canada’s 20 largest cities, according to the federal government.

Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press