WAUKESHA, Wis. (AP) — A push for expanded access to water from the Great Lakes is at a key point as a regional regulating group meets in Chicago this week to consider a request from a Milwaukee suburb to draw from Lake Michigan.
The upcoming recommendation from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Regional Body regarding Waukesha's appeal could have major implications for future requests from other cities that might want to tap into the Great Lakes someday. Environmental groups opposed to the access request have lined up to push back.
The regional group will meet Thursday and possibly Friday to seek a consensus opinion that it would forward to the eight governors of Great Lakes states, who would then accept or reject Waukesha's plan. With governors' representatives involved in this week's talks, it's likely a thumbs-up or thumbs-down declaration from the regional body — which includes two Canadian provinces — would stick.
Waukesha's drinking water is tainted with naturally occurring radium, and the city is seeking a new source. Officials say Lake Michigan, about 20 miles away, is the best alternative, and they've petitioned for access.
Under a landmark 2008 agreement that bans most diversions of Great Lakes water outside its natural boundary, communities within the watershed can tap the lakes, but others can't. Since Waukesha is part of a county that straddles the line, it's among the communities that can apply for an exception, but it needs permission from the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. One "no" vote scraps the pitch.
It's the first request to get this far, and critics say the plan involving a $200 million system to pump and later return 16.7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan would set a bad precedent and jeopardize one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. Dozens of groups have emerged as opponents, saying Waukesha has asked for more water than it needs and hasn't proved there are no better alternatives.
Jennifer Caddick, Alliance for the Great Lakes spokeswoman, says Waukesha can remove the radium for less than the cost of its diversion system and that its request could prompt "death by 1,000 straws" for the lakes, since other communities could line up and ask for a share.
"One little dip may not cause massive harm immediately," Caddick said. "But the application by Waukesha is absolutely precedent-setting."
Waukesha officials, meanwhile, say the water they're requesting amounts to putting a teaspoon into a large pool and that each day they would replace what they remove with treated wastewater.
"We're going to return 100 percent of the water we're drawing from the Great Lakes," Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said.
He added that the city's request "wouldn't open the floodgates for water to go anywhere," such as drought-stricken areas of the West. Waukesha's exception is based on geography and need, and only communities in similar situations would stand to benefit, he said.
"The argument that this will allow water to go to Arizona is being made by people who haven't read the compact or are purposefully misrepresenting," Reilly said.
The regional group's meeting — which involves representatives from the Great Lakes states, plus Ontario and Quebec — could extend into Friday if the body can't reach a unanimous agreement on whether Waukesha's plan meets approval standards.
The talks come after years of study and work from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Waukesha officials who have concluded this plan would be the most efficient and cause the least environmental impact.
If the meeting ends without consensus, the regional body would try again in May. If there is still no consensus, the group would present a mixed declaration.
"It's our hope and intention that consensus is reached," said Peter Johnson, deputy director of the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.
After receiving the opinion, the governors would meet to vote on whether to approve Waukesha's plan.
"That vote," Johnson said, "is binding."
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