MILWAUKEE — As Waukesha’s quest for Lake Michigan water reaches the home stretch, so does the debate over the issue — and Racine’s opposition.

Racine Mayor John Dickert and Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly traded arguments before about 240 people Thursday at “On the Issues with Mike Gousha,” a forum held on the campus of Marquette University.

Due to problems with its water supply, Waukesha is proposing to divert an average of 10 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day and returning treated wastewater to the lake through the Root River.

The years-long debate figures to intensify with the decision now in the hands of Great Lakes governors. The eight governors, all of whom must sign off for Waukesha’s application to be approved, are expected to decide in late May or early June, Reilly said.

Dickert reiterated his stance that Waukesha obtaining Lake Michigan water would harm the Root River, pointing to more phosphorous and pharmaceuticals being brought into the water.

He didn’t offer a prediction on how the governors might come down on the issue, but said there is more nervousness about water following the contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

“Flint showed us just how precious and just how fragile our water systems are,” Dickert said.

Reilly argued the Root River would benefit from more treated water added to it. Waukesha’s analysis showed Lake Michigan as the “only reasonable option” to meet the area’s water needs, he said.

Racine was previously in negotiations to supply Waukesha with lake water but was eventually beaten out by Oak Creek.

Reilly also said the city would explore legal options should the proposal be denied, adding he expects it to ultimately be approved.

Region divided

Besides the impact on the Root River, Reilly and Dickert differ on several other aspects, including whether Waukesha truly has other options besides Lake Michigan water and the precedent-setting nature of Waukesha’s request.

Dickert said Waukesha’s request could open the floodgates to other communities obtaining water in the Great Lakes region and beyond. He has spoken with officials as far away as Arizona who expressed a desire for Great Lakes water, he said.

“Candidly, Mother Nature and the glaciers gave us one shot at this. We have one body of water,” Dickert said. “I’m going to be a little parochial about this and say, ‘y’all can come to me, because we’re not going out to you.’ “

Dickert said he’s also concerned about a long court battle that could follow Waukesha’s proposal.

Reilly, meanwhile, said the precedent was already set with the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, which set the terms by which communities outside the Great Lakes basin could obtain water.

Waukesha meets those terms and has shown why it should be allowed water from the lake, Reilly said.

Denying the request out of fear for additional requests “actually will cheapen the value of the compact,” he said. “Because then it’s like, OK, we’re going to pick and choose what portions of the compact we like and which ones we don’t ... legally that does not work.”

Waukesha’s request has divided southeastern Wisconsin, with city officials in Milwaukee also opposed.

That’s frustrating to Reilly, who along with Dickert said the region needs to collaborate better.

“This does reflect (for) me one of the issues where the southeastern Wisconsin region could have worked together, and unfortunately I don’t think they are,” Reilly said.

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