CHICAGO — In a major defeat for Racine leaders who battled against the plan, a Great Lakes governing body on Tuesday unanimously approved Waukesha’s proposal to obtain Lake Michigan water.
Under the plan, Waukesha will divert an average of 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day and return treated wastewater to the lake via the Root River.
The potential impact on the Root had resulted in loud opposition from many in Racine, including state Rep. Cory Mason, who traveled extensively throughout the region encouraging states to vote no.
He said he hopes opponents explore legal options to stop the diversion.
“The Great Lakes Compact failed today and it failed the Root River,” said Mason, D-Racine.
“I certainly would be encouraging people who share the concerns about the future of the river and the strength of the compact to look at every possible remedy available,” Mason said.
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All options will be explored, according to Mayor John Dickert, saying “it’s my job to protect the citizens of Racine.”
He had harsh words for the decision, saying states forgot about communities downstream and asked rhetorically if Waukesha residents would be willing to swim outside its treatment plant where wastewater will be discharged.
The vote opens the door for more than 100 other communities to obtain water from a lake that is “not a limitless resource,” Dickert said.
“This is a date that’s going to go down in history — June 21st of 2016 — that kids and future generations are going to look back and ask, ‘What they were thinking?’” Dickert said.
Waukesha applauds action
Waukesha becomes the first city outside the Great Lakes basin to obtain lake water since the compact went into effect in 2008. It has argued lake water is its only reasonable alternative to solve high radium problems.
To move forward, Waukesha’s application needed unanimous approval by all eight Great Lakes states. Tuesday’s vote allows the State of Wisconsin to proceed with regulatory decision-making and permitting, officials say.
Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, acknowledged the possibility of legal action but noted the broad support from states and provinces. Canadian provincial leaders did not have a vote Tuesday but favored the application in a preliminary vote last month.
“Eight governors and two premiers who put the compact in place to protect the Great Lakes all voted unanimously in favor of this diversion,” Duchniak said.
“If somebody comes and sues, obviously we’ll have to deal with it, but we feel great about our position,” Duchniak said.
Duchniak said Tuesday’s vote was a “huge relief” for Waukesha after a years-long quest to replace its water supply and argued the plan protects the Root River.
According to the plan, Waukesha must implement a “scientifically sound plan to monitor the mainstem of the Root River to determine changes that may have resulted from return flow,” such as volume, water temperature and water quality.
Representatives from Minnesota and Michigan offered several amendments to the proposal. One would allow the Great Lakes Compact council — the collection of Great Lakes states — to conduct an inspection and audit of Waukesha’s operations upon 30 days notice to Waukesha and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Minnesota had previously raised the loudest objections to the diversion, but authored another amendment that stated the diversion “does not have significant adverse impacts.”
The amendments were approved, though Illinois representative Dan Injerd raised concerns that the changes came at the last minute and, in some cases, restate what’s already in the Great Lakes Compact, which governs the lake region.
Cathy Stepp, the Wisconsin DNR secretary and former state senator from Racine County who cast the state’s vote in favor, said it could be four to five years before Waukesha actually gets the water, with permitting and construction still to come.
Stepp applauded the years of work leading up to Tuesday’s unprecedented vote.
“I feel really confident, and I think the public should as well, about the extraordinary review that this project has gone through,” Stepp said.
"This is a date that’s going to go down in history — June 21 of 2016 — that kids and future generations are going to look back and ask, 'What they were thinking?'"
— Mayor John Dickert
"I feel really confident, and I think the public should as well, about the extraordinary review that this project has gone through."
— Cathy Stepp, Wisconsin DNR secretary