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Home » News & Events » News » Habush Sinykin: Why the Great Lakes Compact is so important in the Waukesha water debate


Habush Sinykin: Why the Great Lakes Compact is so important in the Waukesha water debate

Jul 14, 2015

The power of the law is an important tool in protecting our natural resources. When we create a legally binding agreement, with the approval of multiple levels of government, and deliberative input from citizens and other stakeholders, we get the chance to bring environmental justice and democracy together.

That’s why the Great Lakes Compact is a big deal. It’s a blueprint for how we will share the Great Lakes as a freshwater resource now and in the future.

The City of Waukesha sits on the line between the Lake Michigan water basin to the east and the Mississippi River water basin to the west. Residents of the city need a plan to deal with radium-contaminated groundwater found in some of the drinking water wells.

Taking water from Lake Michigan could be a way to solve the problem, but under the agreement in the Great Lakes Compact, such diversions must be a last resort for communities that have exhausted all other conservation and smart growth options.

A group of Great Lakes defenders has been watchdogging Waukesha’s water plan for years and has recently released in-depth information about the ways in which the City has championed a flawed plan that doesn’t follow the Great Lakes Compact, and could to better to embrace conservation and water treatment plans or more honestly represent the community’s current and future demand for water.

Jodi Habush Sinykin is a Milwaukee-area attorney who has worked to support Midwest Environmental Advocates' mission for many years. She is bringing her experience with the passage of the Great Lakes Compact to the Compact Implementation Coalition’s work to make sure alternative models for Waukesha’s safe drinking water needs are heard. Learn more at protectourgreatlakes.org.

Habush Sinykin: Why a Non-Diversion Solution is an important model to consider for Waukesha and the future of our Great Lakes freshwater resource

I have worked, together with this Coalition, for over 10 years to secure the enactment and strong implementation of the Great Lakes Compact, a historic regional agreement intended to protect and sustain our incredible world class resource and to ensure that Great Lakes water remains in the basin. The City of Waukesha’s application for a diversion is the first regional test of the Compact’s limited exceptions to its ban on diversions.  As such, it is very important to all of us in the region that we get it right.

Given the extensive news coverage on the City’s application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to divert water from Lake Michigan, you may be wondering how we arrived at this present juncture and what created the urgency for an independent professional evaluation.  For more than a few years, the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition has reached out to the City of Waukesha and the DNR , first with offers of support and then with increasing levels of concern, over Waukesha’s evident reluctance to evaluate viable water supply alternatives other than  its preferred alternative: a diversion of water from Lake Michigan.

We soon came to understand that Waukesha was resting its Great Lakes diversion proposal on an expanded water supply service area, which drew in portions of four neighboring communities, the City of Pewaukee and the Towns of Genesee, Delafield and Waukesha, which the City of Waukesha does not currently serve and, in the case of the three Towns, are mostly on private well and septic systems.

Waukesha’s reliance upon this expanded water supply service area delivers consequences, however, both practical and legal.  By adding an additional 17 square miles to the city’s existing service area of 22 square miles, Waukesha predicts significantly elevated, future water demands and potential harm to sensitive natural resources.

More compelling still, legally speaking, Waukesha’s reliance upon the expanded service area has effectively created a shaky house of cards that places Waukesha’s entire diversion application in legal jeopardy.  These portions of neighboring communities, making up the expanded service area, do not, and cannot, demonstrate compliance with at least two key criteria of the Great Lakes Compact:

  • For one, none of these communities can point to an inadequate supply of potable water; and
  • Second, none of these communities have implemented water conservation prior to the City of Waukesha’s application for a diversion, as required under the Great Lakes Compact.

Peter McAvoy, an environmental and public health advocate and a Milwaukee-area Adjunct Professor with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, put the infrastructure costs to surrounding communities this way: “If your community decided that you were going to hook up to the City of Waukesha for water, you would also have to hook up to the regional wastewater treatment facility. So if you are a homeowner you don’t get to do one without the other. Under the diversion scenario under the City of Waukesha, you would be required to build the infrastructure to get the water from the street or wherever it is being delivered to your home and then you have to build the infrastructure to your sewer back out to WWU regional wastewater facility and you would have to do both. To compound the infrastructure development issues, water conservation is questionable, jurisdictionally speaking, how one jurisdiction, the City Waukesha, could impose water conservation requirements on portions of other communities so it opens up that Pandora’s box as well.”

Given these implications, and Waukesha’s resistance to considering an alternative based on its current water supply service area, the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition had to take it upon ourselves to seek out independent engineering and economic experts to evaluate the viability of an alternative to the diversion alternative advanced by Waukesha, one that would pass legal muster under the Compact.

The Non-Diversion Solution that these experts have fully vetted and support is a true game changer with respect to the City of Waukesha’s application. Whereas Waukesha contends that there is no reasonable water supply alternative available to its residents, other than a Lake Michigan diversion, this report proves otherwise—even more remarkably, saving Waukesha ratepayers $150 million in the process. The Non-Diversion Solution is just as, if not more reasonable: it’s cheaper, it meets public health standards and it causes less environmental impact to surface waters.

The Achilles heel of Waukesha’s application clearly is Waukesha’s insistence upon advancing an expanded water supply service area, which includes portions of four neighboring communities that, to date, have shown no compliance with key requirements under the Great Lakes Compact. Realistically speaking, they may never be in a position to do so.  The Non-Diversion Solution identifies the faulty premise of Waukesha’s application by relying upon the city’s existing water supply service area for its data, modeling and conclusions, and in so doing, provides an alternative that is legally compliant with the Great Lakes Compact.


Find the full audio of the Compact Implementation Coalition's presentation, along with a slide show comparing Waukesha's current application proposal to this non-diversion solution on the Protect Our Great Lakes website.

We featured two statements from the Compact Implementation Coalition previously on our blog. You can find the June 25 post on why the "Application for diversion of Great Lakes water falls far short: Bad precedent in the making" and the June 9 post on how the "Non-Diversion Solutin provides Waukesha with abundant supply of safe, clean drinking water" on the Protect Our Great Lakes website.

Keep up to date on news coverage and announcements about ways the public can tell the DNR what they think via the Protect Our Great Lakes Facebook page or on Twitter at @ProtectGLWater.

/ tagged: great lakes compact, drinking water