Ontario and Quebec voice support for Waukesha Great Lakes water diversion

The Great Lakes Compact fails its first big test

To the Expositor:

It looks like Waukesha will be getting Great Lakes water after all.

On May 18, the Water Resources Regional Body (established by the Great Lakes Compact) voted 9-0 in favor of letting the Wisconsin city divert water out of the Great Lakes basin. Minnesota abstained, but the other seven Great Lakes states along with Ontario and Quebec voted to recommend.

The Regional Body did apply conditions to its approval: a smaller service area than requested, a reduction in diversion volume from 10.1 to 8.2 million gallons a day, and a requirement that Waukesha monitor treated sewage discharged into the Root River (on its way back to Lake Michigan) for 10 years.

While the eight Great Lakes governors (premiers are not included in the next decision step) will take the final vote in June, the Waukesha diversion looks like a done deal.

Some observers are saying that the diversion proposal review process established by the Compact has worked well. But others, myself included, think it has failed so far.

Basically, the Compact decision-making on a diversion proposal has four components; 1) public review and comment, 2) input from Tribes/First Nations, 3) review and recommendation by the Regional Body; and 4) vote by the governors.

The first clear weakness in the Compact is that the first two components appear to have no significance.

The general public was deeply engaged by the Waukesha request and provided over 11,000 comments, with more than 98 percent of them opposed. Among the commenters were a wide range of environmental groups as well as organizations like the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus—organizations that represent thousands more concerned citizens.

Of all the Tribes and First Nations in the Great Lakes watershed none registered approval of the Waukesha diversion, while many stated disapproval.

The people have spoken, and they say no. But the process moves on.

The second big weakness in the process is that a review by the Regional Body will almost always lead to a diversion approval, regardless of what the people say. The Regional Body is comprised of technocrats, Department of Natural Resources (DNR)/Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) kind of people, appointed by governors and premiers. No doubt these are smart, hard-working folks, but they are technicians, and they see the diversion request coming from their Wisconsin colleagues as a technical issue, one that can be resolved by tweaking. They have assumed from the beginning the Waukesha’s request is legitimate and based on real need, and it can all be worked out.

The third big weakness is the close interaction (coziness?) throughout the review process among the City of Waukesha, the Wisconsin DNR and the Regional Body. These groups were in close contact, effectively reworking the application as a team. The public was not part of process. And, now that a new and revised proposal has been produced, it is being sent to the governors without any further public involvement.

The fourth big weakness is what’s likely to happen when the Regional Body’s recommendation gets to the governors. Although any one governor can veto the application, it will take courage to go against colleagues, and an equal or greater courage to reject the technical review and recommendation.  There could also be a worry that the review and recommendation, if rejected, would make good material for a lawsuit.

Taken all together, what appears to be a rational and technical process doesn’t work. That’s because beneath the surface it’s politics. Waukesha is an affluent and politically connected (tea-party) city, and under the current governor the Wisconsin DNR is not an impartial, independent agency.

The procedures set forth in the Compact can’t handle power politics, and it looks like the Compact is going to fail its first big test. 

Jim Nies

Kagawong, Ontario and Whitewater, Wisconsin