Absent any legal challenges, the city will become the first U.S. community located entirely outside the Great Lakes drainage basin to receive a diversion of lake water under the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among states.
The compact was approved in 2008 to protect the largest source of fresh water in the world from diversions outside the basin. Waukesha County straddles the subcontinental divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, making the city eligible to apply for lake water.
Waukesha asked for 10 million gallons per day of Lake Michigan water several years ago after its water supply became contaminated by naturally occurring radium, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. In addition to limiting daily withdrawal to 8 million gallons, Waukesha must also restrict its water service area to the city's borders, submit to performance audits and return an equal amount of the water pumped from the lake. It will return as fully treated wastewater discharged to the Root River, a tributary of the lake, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
In the months leading up to the historic vote, 38,000 citizens from around the Great Lakes basin offered their opinions on the request, 99 percent of whom opposed Waukesha's request, The Plain Dealer noted. In addition, 11 of Michigan's members of Congress urged Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the diversion request.
To qualify for an exception to the compact, Waukesha had to prove it had no feasible alternative to Great Lakes water to meet its needs. Some environmental groups argued that the city failed to meet that standard, contending that Waukesha could update its water treatment plant to remove radium from its deep groundwater wells like some of its neighboring communities have done. The environmental groups fear approval will set a dangerous precedent for future diversions, leaving it vulnerable to water-thirsty areas in the Southwest. Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly disputed that in an op-ed piece in the Journal Sentinel.