Great Lakes states approve thirsty city’s water plea

CHICAGO (AP) — A suburban Milwaukee city won a hard-fought battle Tuesday to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan, a key test of a regional compact designed to safeguard the Great Lakes region’s abundant but vulnerable fresh water supply.

A panel representing the governors of the eight states adjoining the lakes unanimously approved a $207 million proposal from Waukesha, Wisconsin, where groundwater wells on which the city has long relied are contaminated with radium.

The city is only 17 miles from the lake but lies just outside the Great Lakes watershed, which required it to get special permission under a 2008 compact that prohibits most diversions of water across the watershed boundary. It provides a potential exception for communities within counties that straddle the line. Waukesha is the first to request water under that provision.

“There are a lot of emotions and politics surrounding this issue but voting yes — in cooperation with our Great Lakes neighbors — is the best way to conserve one of our greatest natural resources,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said. “Mandating strict conditions for withdrawing and returning the water sets a strong precedent for protecting the Great Lakes.”

The city won a conditional endorsement last month from a panel representing the eight states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — plus the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It required Waukesha to reduce the volume of water it would withdraw daily from 10.1 million gallons in its application to 8.2 million gallons, and to shrink the size of the area it would provide with Lake Michigan water.

Opponents said Waukesha had other alternatives and approving its request could set a bad precedent.

“The most important part about this decision isn’t whether the city of Waukesha gets water or not,” Molly Flanagan, vice president of policy for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said prior to Tuesday’s vote. “It’s whether it sets a strong enough bar for future communities that might look to get Great Lakes water.”