House Call with Carol Hughes

Waukesha diversion is a slippery slope

It wasn’t long ago I wrote about the danger presented by a request from the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan. At that time it seemed that so many groups and communities around the Great Lakes were lining up in opposition to the Mississippi River basin community’s application that it was inconceivable the Great Lakes would support it. After all, these are politicians who will have to face the same voters who spoke so strongly against the plan. That is part of what makes the decision to allow Waukesha to divert water out of the Great Lakes basin seem funny.

Now that the diversion will go ahead, the job of protecting the Great Lakes becomes that much harder. These lakes provide drinking water for tens of millions in hundreds of communities around the lake. On top of that, the health of the lakes impacts on a great many jobs. These aren’t just resource jobs like commercial fishing, there are consumer and manufacturing jobs that rely on tourism and shipping in clean and plentiful waters. So it only makes sense for Great Lake jurisdictions to do all they can to protect the lakes. Despite that common knowledge, Waukesha was approved and bulk water diversion looms as a new and potentially disastrous threat.

We have seen in recent years the trouble that fluctuating water levels can create for communities around the Great Lakes. Infrastructure challenges grow as water is depleted. Drinking water intake pipes can freeze when they are closer to the surface and docking facilities can become difficult to use or even unsuitable and unsafe. Remember how challenges related to docking the Chi-Cheemaun ferry threatened to halt that service and throw a multi-million dollar monkey wrench into the tourist economy on Manitoulin Island, the North Shore of Lake Huron, and the Bruce Peninsula. With challenges like that coming from climatic conditions, we can ill-afford to watch as Great Lakes water disappears through careless diversion-forever.

Waukesha’s approval has many critics. Among them is Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee who didn’t mince his words on the subject. He says that the plan to remove water from the basin’s drainage is the opening salvo in the water wars we have been warned about and will open the door for other jurisdictions outside the Great Lakes basin to tap into the waters.

The Anishinabek Nation is not alone with this opinion and groups like the Council of Canadians have been warning us for years that our fresh water is undervalued and requires strong protection. North American trade deals have so far exempted bulk water removal, but Waukesha could mean those exemptions are in jeopardy. Laws tend to be interpreted by precedent and precedent has now been re-set to include diversion.

What is required now is a strong statement from the Canadian government. It is time to bear the fruit of our good relationship with our American neighbours and double down on joint-protection for the Great Lakes. Anything less will amount to a careless refusal to see the danger for what it is and an abandonment of our duty to protect the lakes for future generations.