Waukesha and Racine Mayors Stake Out Opposing Positions on Water Diversion Application

Does Waukesha’s application to divert water from Lake Michigan represent the only reasonable option to provide its residents with clean, safe, and sustainable drinking water, or will it cause adverse environmental impacts and set a negative precedent leading to dozens more “straws in the lake”?  That was the subject of conversation between Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly and Racine Mayor John Dickert during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program before a capacity crowd at Marquette Law School.

Waukesha diversionThe Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between Wisconsin and the other Great Lakes states, generally operates as a ban on new and increased diversions of Great Lakes water outside the Great Lakes basin, with certain limited exceptions.  One of those exceptions allows communities located outside the basin, but within counties that straddle the basin line, to apply for a diversion.  Waukesha is the first community to apply for a diversion under that exception.  Its application has drawn close attention locally and nationally.  The Compact sets out strict requirements for such applications.  To succeed, the City’s application must demonstrate that it has “no reasonable water supply alternative,” that its need cannot be reasonably avoided through the efficient use and conservation of existing water supplies, and that it will cause no significant adverse impacts to the quantity or quality of the water used, among other legal requirements.  Under the terms of the Compact, all eight Great Lakes governors (or their designees) have veto power over the application.

During the “On the Issues” program, the two mayors agreed on the importance of regional cooperation on water and other pressing issues (although both lamented the absence of that cooperation in this particular case), but not on much else.  In a respectful but pointed discussion, they staked out opposing positions on the pending application.

Faced with a “declining, contaminated” aquifer, Waukesha is under a court order to find a new water source by June 2018.  Mayor Reilly observed that the City has studied potential solutions to its water crisis for over a decade and concluded that the Great Lakes supply is the “only reasonable option” for the City to pursue.  He noted that the state Department of Natural Resources has worked on the application for five years and reached the same conclusion.

After using the water, Waukesha will be required to treat it and return it to Lake Michigan via the Root River, which flows through Racine.  Mayor Dickert voiced concerns related to flooding and increased pollutants such as phosphorus and pharmaceuticals related to the increased flow.  The diversion would adversely affect recreational activities in Racine, he asserted.  Mayor Reilly responded that he would “put [the Waukesha] treatment facility up against any treatment facility in the state,” and assured the audience that the wastewater returned to the Lake will be fully treated to levels that satisfy all applicable state standards.  The increased flow will actually improve water quality in the river, he said.

The mayors also clashed on whether granting the Waukesha application would ease the path for increased diversions in the future.  “The battle over water has just begun,” Mayor Dickert said.  He expressed concern that if the Waukesha application succeeds, dozens of additional municipalities will seek to “stick a straw in the lake.”  “[Mayor Reilly] is fighting for his city; I’m fighting for the long term interest of the Great Lakes,” Dickert said.  Mayor Reilly responded that the relevant precedent was set when the Compact was signed.  Its standards are fact-based and clear, he said, and the parties can’t be selective about when to follow them.

In response to a question from the audience, Mayor Reilly voiced confidence that the application will succeed, but noted that if it fails for “political reasons,” the City will review its legal options to challenge the decision.

More information about the application can be found here and here.  The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body (“the Regional Body”) and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council (“the Compact Council”) are accepting public comments on the application until March 14, 2016.  A briefing meeting and public hearing on the application will be held February 17-18 in Waukesha.  Both are open to the public. A final decision on the application is expected in late May or early June.

Full video of the discussion can be found here.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Bill McClenahan

    The straws, if any, will not drain the Great Lakes. Waukesha would borrow 1/1,000,000th of 1% of Great Lakes water and return the same volume. This does not require a choice between protecting the Great Lakes and safe drinking water for Waukesha. The Compact prohibits water from going beyond counties that straddle the Basin. 99% of the US cannot even apply. It requires demonstrated need. And it requires that the water be returned after use and treatment.

  2. David Papke

    The post failed to mention that the City of Milwaukee has an interest in the controversy. The City offered to sell Waukesha purified Lake Michigan water at its standard price, but Waukesha would not agree to forego using that water in yet-to-be-developed industrial and business “parks.” Some portion of this projected Waukesha industry and business would presumably be drawn from the City.

    It’s a shame that when Waukesha political leaders drive into the City for a Brewers’ game or to see a show at the Art Museum, they do not appreciate that they are a municipality in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Their preference is to define themselves against the City of Milwaukee, as a sanctuary of sorts from the neighboring realities of urban life.

  3. Kristin Lindemann

    This post also touches on whether a diversion is Waukesha’s only option for meeting the requirements of the court order. Isn’t part of the controversy that there is disagreement about whether that is true? Or has this been laid to rest?

  4. David Strifling


    Whether a diversion is the “only reasonable option” is certainly still part of the controversy.

  5. Paul Junio

    Mayor Dickert is concerned about an increase in pharmaceuticals in the returned water. Given that those compounds aren’t currently required to be analyzed in wastewater or drinking water, that would be a difficult item to assess. He may be correct, but without baseline data, how would anyone know?

  6. David Strifling


    Your point is well taken. To add some detail to the post, I recall that the mayor’s argument was that if the current concentration is “X,” the new level would be X plus some delta, and he doesn’t want that delta.

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