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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Great Lakes Diversions


By Jessica Lemieux

The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, submitted a water diversion proposal to the Great Lake States and the provinces of Ontario and Québec for regional review. In the diversion proposal, Waukesha outlined a plan to divert water from Lake Michigan for the city's use, while ensuring lake levels would not be impacted, as 100% of the borrowed water would be treated and returned to Lake Michigan through Root River. On May 18, 2016 the Regional Body approved a Declaration of Finding concluding that, with conditions - which include reducing the maximum diversion volume to 8.2 million gallons per day and reducing the area in which water can be diverted - the City of Waukesha's diversion application meets the Compact exception criteria.

There are varying views on the issue, including those who feel that Waukesha has earned the right to access the water as they have met all stringent requirements, and those who believe that if this proposal is approved it may be setting a very dangerous precedent. The perspectives of the City of Waukesha, the International Joint Commission, the Government of Ontario and Environment and Climate Change Canada will be further explored.

The City of Waukesha currently receives its water from an aquifer with high radium levels that exceed the federal limit by three times. The city currently treats the water for radium, but says that it will not be able to continue to meet the federal standards by June 2018. The City of Waukesha argues that by approving the application, it would mean that the Compact to protect the Great Lakes works. The city believes that since communities in counties outside the basin are prohibited from applying, and those who are inside such counties need to go through an expensive and thorough review- just as Waukesha has done - it ensures the protection of the Great Lakes. "Only in very narrow circumstances and requirements, and after stringent review, can water be drawn from the lakes. Waukesha has passed the review and met those requirements. It deserves the diversion."

The International Joint Commission is an independent, objective advisor to the United States of America and Canada under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Their role is as an independent and objective advisor to the two governments, while preventing and resolving disputes and pursuing the common good for both countries. The International Joint Commission is also responsible for investigating trans-boundary issues and recommending solutions, guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty.

Public Affairs Advisor for the International Joint Commission (IJC), Michael Toope, explained, "Lake Michigan is not a boundary water as defined in the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and so the Governments are not obliged to seek IJC approval of uses or diversions of water from waters of Lake Michigan."

The International Joint Commission's December 2015 Report, Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes, asserts that "the 2008 Great Lakes Compact and the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement which, if fully and rigorously implemented, provides a solid foundation for managing Great Lakes diversions and consumptive uses into the foreseeable future."

In a report from 2000, the IJC recommended that the governments of the Great Lakes states and provinces should not permit any proposal for removal of water from the Great Lakes to proceed, unless the proponent could demonstrate that the removal would not endanger the integrity of the ecosystem of the Great Lakes and that certain other conditions be met. The most critical of these conditions was that there be no greater than a 5% loss, and that the water be returned in a condition that protects the quality and prevents the introduction of alien invasive species into the waters of the Great Lakes. The Agreement and Compact include similarly stringent requirements, as new or increased diversions outside the Basin are prohibited, and there are limited and conditional exceptions for municipal water supply to communities straddling the Basin divide, as well as for communities within straddling counties.

The 2015 Report, Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes, recommends the following:

The existing Agreement and Compact should continue to be rigorously implemented to minimize loss of water from the Basin, including full implementation of existing legislation to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected as intended by the Agreement and Compact.
Great Lakes states and provinces should consider the advisability of developing, harmonizing and implementing a bi-national public trust framework as a backstop to the Agreement and Compact, in order to fill gaps and to deal with as yet undefined stresses likely to impact negatively on the Great Lakes in the future.
The precautionary approach regarding diversions must continue to guide the states and provinces in order to protect the Great Lakes from an ever-increasing number of larger-scale removals.

The Government of Ontario has shared the strong concerns expressed by the public, in regards to Waukesha's original diversion proposal. The Government of Ontario understands the importance of fresh water and the vital role of the Great Lakes and undertook a thorough Technical Review of the original diversion proposal that identified numerous shortcomings.

Waukesha's proposal has since been significantly amended in order to address a number of Ontario's and other governments' concerns, including:

  • Reducing the area where the water could be used to only the City of Waukesha - a reduction of nearly 50%;
  • Reducing the amount of water that is permitted to be used by 20%; and
  • Requiring significant monitoring and reporting of the quality and quantity of the water being returned to the Great Lakes and any effects of increased water flow into the Root River.

    An official statement by the Government of Ontario explains:

      Ontario's active role on this file has directly led to revisions being made. While the amended proposal meets the requirements of the agreement as outlined in the Regional Body's Declaration of Finding, we remain apprehensive about any diversion by Waukesha and will continue to voice the concerns of Ontarians. We also recognize that there is an opportunity to improve the current process by refining existing guidelines. The May 18th meeting was the final meeting of the Regional Body regarding Waukesha's diversion proposal. At that meeting, Ontario and Québec, along with all other members of the Regional Body (except for Minnesota, which abstained), agreed to a Declaration of Finding accepting Waukesha's amended proposal.

    A key priority for the Government of Canada is to protect Canada's freshwater, which includes the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. The Government of Canada is closely monitoring the progress of the City of Waukesha's water diversion application.

    An official statement from Environment and Climate Change Canada explained that the Federal Government will "protect these vital trans-boundary ecosystems with a renewed sense of collaboration, including improved partnerships with the United States, Ontario and Québec, local governments, and Indigenous peoples, as well as constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society and stakeholders."

    The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact - signed by the 8 Great Lakes states - provides strong legal protections to prevent the withdrawal of water from the Great Lakes Basin. Under this accord, "diversions of water from the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River basin to areas outside this basin are banned with limited exceptions that are available only when rigorous standards as described in the Compact are met." The Compact Council members are currently reviewing the City of Waukesha's proposal and will make the final decision in this matter.

    Related Stories

    Waukesha water diversion - Part 2
    Waukesha water diversion - Part 3

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