Great Lakes water must, above all, be returned to the lakes

It is troubling that, of the nine American states bordering the Great Lakes and whose governors or their proxies had the final say to a proposed water diversion in Wisconsin that will send Great Lakes water beyond the Great Lakes Basin and into another watershed area, none of these states ultimately objected to the proposal as they could have done under the terms of the Great Lakes Compact.

The provinces with Great Lakes coastline, Ontario and Quebec, are not part of the Great Lakes Compact except by observer status although representatives from the two Canadian jurisdictions were invited to the table when the decision was made to grant the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin the right to eventually divert as much as 8.2 million gallons per day of Lake Michigan water.

Granted, the city of Waukesha was forced to modify its original request which was for a higher volume of water which would have been dispersed to an area beyond the city. As it presently stands, only the city itself and its outlying boroughs will benefit from the eventual diversion.

The diverted water, which will eventually become Waukesha’s single source of water, will be returned as treated sewage to Lake Michigan via the Root River.

In a letter to the editor in last week’s edition of The Expositor, Wisconsin resident Jim Nies, who also spends time at his Kagawong area cottage and is a keen environmental observer, quoted the mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, through which Waukesha’s treated sewage will pass on its trip to Lake Michigan, as saying that, with this decision, the Great Lakes compact “is over.”

Racine Mayor John Dickert has also threatened a lawsuit from his city if the Waukesha plan was to proceed, which  it now has licence to do.

Waukesha, about 50km northwest of Racine, geographically straddles the Great Lakes Basin so the fact that it enjoys this historic surveyor’s perk opened the door for it to apply for Lake Michigan water not only for the city itself but also for communities definitely outside of the Great Lakes Basin but which are associated with Waukesha.

The main point of this exercise is that, as Mr. Nies pointed out in his well written letter, this has been a precedent-setting decision and the ramifications are enormous to the Great Lakes, situated as they are to the north of central and western United States regions that are running out of fresh water.

Now that this battle has been fought and won with the ultimate acquiescence of the other eight Great Lakes governors and the quiet permission of the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, the next time such a request comes before the Great Lakes Compact, and such a request (or several of them) are doubtless being drafted right now in the wake of the Waukesha decision, it will be difficult for the group to ultimately deny it (them).

Granted, we’re sitting beside a large proportion of all the world’s fresh water as residents of Great Lakes communities.

We can only assume that the governors and premiers determined that it would be unfair to continue to hoard this wonderful resource in light of the case a community like Waukesha made to be able to continue its growth and development, even beyond its primary urban perimeter.

It’s not that the water is being sold; it’s being diverted and most of it will return to the Great Lakes as treated sewage, just like Chicago, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie (both of them), Kingston, Belleville, Owen Sound and all Manitoulin Island communities on the North Channel and Lake Huron equipped with waste water treatment systems presently do.

We are used to drinking and bathing and cooking with water that has passed through millions of kidneys and has been treated, disinfected and returned to source.

That is not the point of all the concerns that are being raised.

The point is, for future applications for diversion from any of the five Great Lakes, how far beyond the Great Lakes Basin will it be pumped and piped?

Will it be 50 km? 100 km? Half a continent?

In the current debate, Waukesha is committed to bearing the cost of pumping and piping in the diverted Lake Michigan water, treating the waste water and routing the treated water through a river system that brings it back to Lake Michigan, Lake Huron’s twin lake in terms of water levels.

It appears that we are going to have to live with this new arrangement.

What we should not have to live with, however, and the politicians we send to Ottawa, Queen’s Park and Quebec City should receive this message loudly, clearly and soon is, based on this precedent, the Great Lakes cannot be seen as a watering can for vast and thirsty areas of North America south of the 49th parallel.

We now will, within a decade, be sending some water beyond the Great Lakes Basin and we’ll be getting most of it back.

The precedent must be this but no more than this.

The Great Lakes is a unique repository of fresh water but it is, like most natural resources, not inexhaustible.

During the past 30 years, the levels of Lakes Huron and Michigan have fluctuated by as much as 10 feet and, only three years ago when these lakes’ official measure of depth finally dipped below chart datum, there was enormous concern among the residents of communities that border these two enormous bodies of water.

The water is coming back up now, but when it was low that had nothing to do with water diversions and much to do with the vagaries of nature, over which we have absolutely no control.

The Great Lakes Compact, both its American and Canadian delegates, must bear in mind the natural ebb and flow of these lakes when other application for water diversions are being considered.

At the very least, the rule that the water taken out of one of the Great Lakes must be returned to it must be honoured above all.