Great Lakes governors and their counterparts in Canada are working on a legal agreement called Annex 2001. The document will determine how water from the Great Lakes will be used and who gets to use it. Controversy has already erupted over the possibility of one city’s bid for the water. The city is looking toward the completed Annex for guidance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:
Great Lakes governors and their counterparts in Canada are working
on a legal agreement called Annex 2001. The document will determine how
water from the Great Lakes will be used and who gets to use it. Controversy
has already erupted over the possibility of one city’s bid for the water.
The city is looking toward the completed Annex for guidance. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:
Dan Duchniak says he’s an environmentalist.
“We have the low-flow showerheads in our house, we have the low-flow faucets, we have the high-efficiency washers and dryers, our kids know about those, you know, they think they’re fun.”
But Duchniak is in the middle of a bitter fight with other environmentalists and officials over his area’s largest natural resource: water from Lake Michigan. Duchniak is the water manager for the City of Waukesha, Wisconsin. It’s just west of Milwaukee. Waukesha is only about 20 miles from the Lake Michigan shore. Right now, Waukesha gets its water from wells that tap an aquifer deep within the ground. But Duchniak says the wells won’t sustain the long-term needs of the city.
“As the water levels drop, the water quality degrades, and what happens is we’ve seen an increase in different water quality parameters, one of those being radium.”
And radium is a health problem. In very high doses, radium can cause bone cancer. To solve its water problems, the City of Waukesha might ask for access to Lake Michigan water. But even though the community considers the lake part of its back yard, there’s a major problem. Even though it’s close, Waukesha sits outside the Great Lakes basin.
That means the area’s ditches and streams drain away from the lake. Rain water runoff and treated water from the sewer system flow toward the Mississippi River Basin. The governors and premiers might include a rule in the Annex 2001 that says communities sitting outside the Great Lakes basin must return treated water to the lake, if they use it.
Engineers who study water in the area say Waukesha could make the case that the city is already using Great Lakes water. That’s because the city’s wells tap into water beneath the surface that supply water to Lake Michigan. But environmentalists say that argument isn’t going to fly. Derek Sheer is with the environmental group “Clean Wisconsin.” He says Waukesha would be pumping a lot more water directly from the lake than the underground aquifer would replace.
“They’re not returning 13 million gallons of water back to the Great Lakes by any stretch of the imagination.”
But the city of Waukesha knows that if the finalized Annex 2001 looks anything like the early drafts, the city would have to return most of the water it uses back to the lake. Waukesha’s water manager, Dan Duchniak says that could be done in a combination of ways. The city could pump it back to the lake, pump it to a nearby stream that flows to the lake, or stop using the ground water completely and let it flow back to the lake.
People on both sides of the water issue seem to agree on one thing: because of the huge amount of water in the Great Lakes system, and its natural ebb and flow, the amount of water the City of Waukesha would take would not harm the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. Even if it’s not pumped back.
Art Brooks is a professor at the Center for Great Lakes Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“The amount of water they intend to withdraw would probably lower the level of Lake Michigan on the order of a millimeter or so, probably less that five millimeters per year.”
But it’s not just Waukesha that has environmentalists worried. Professor Brooks and environmentalist Derek Sheer say if Waukesha gains access to Great Lakes water, it could set a dangerous precedent. Sheer doesn’t want other states and countries to start withdrawing Great Lakes water.
“If Waukesha and Arizona and Georgia and all these other places start pumping large amounts of water out of the basin, we could see a dramatic lowering of the water in the lakes.”
The city of Waukesha says it needs the water and would abide by whatever the Annex 2001 agreement sets down. And Waukesha’s water manager, Dan Duchniak, says that includes what it determines about return flow. He says arguing about the issue right now is a waste of time, since the Annex isn’t done. Beyond that, Duchniak says Waukesha is part of the Great Lakes system, and is not about to suck the lakes dry.
“Lake Michigan is in our back yard. We can see Lake Michigan from here. We’re not that far away from it.”
The experts say Waukesha would only be the first in line to ask for Great Lakes water. With suburbs sprawling away from the big cities on the lakes more and more towns will be eyeing the Great Lakes when demand for water exceeds their underground supplies.
A draft of the Annex could be ready this year, but it will most likely go through a lengthy series of votes before it becomes law.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Christina Shockley.