Waukesha diversion decision will live in infamy

Time for the electors in the Great Lakes to assess their representatives’ priorities

To the Expositor:

Waukesha.  A name that will live in infamy?

Very likely.

On Tuesday, June 21, the eight Great Lakes governors gave final approval to that city’s water diversion application. Jubilation in Waukesha’s pro-growth community. Disappointment and anxiety elsewhere around the Lakes, with fear that a bad precedent has been set.

The mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, the city that will receive Waukesha’s treated sewage as is makes its way back to Lake Michigan, has said that the governors gave in and as a result the Great Lakes Compact “is over.”

On the other hand, Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance thinks the Compact worked well. “Today’s decision is incredibly important to the business community,” she said.

The meeting granting approval was the last step in the review process specified by the Compact for a city lying outside the Great Lakes watershed—the governors have the final say. But no governor actually attended the meeting. Instead all sent proxies.

Tea Party Republican Scott Walker (the failed 2016 presidential candidate who thought building a wall between Canada and the U.S. might be a good idea) sent Cathy Stepp, the person he appointed in 2011 to head the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—“to bring a chamber of commerce” orientation to the agency. Stepp, a former construction business owner and real estate developer, was a well-known DNR basher when appointed.

In a June 26, 2009 Real Debate Wisconsin blog she said, “people who go to work for the DNR’s land, waste, and water bureaus tend to be anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc…This is in their nature; their make-up and DNA. So, since they’re unelected bureaucrats who have only their cubicle walls to bounce ideas off of, they tend to come up with some pretty outrageous stuff that those of us in the real world have to contend with.”

With Stepp in charge, nearly a dozen scientists have been terminated and other important leaders have departed. The agency has become disabled and dispirited. According to one former senior DNR employee, “DNR management has made it clear to staff that environmental advocacy is no longer the core mission of DNR and staff are disallowed from doing so.  What was once a guardian of Wisconsin’s natural heritage is now reduced to a rubber-stamping vendor of licenses and permits without oversight.”

It is under this disabled DNR that Wisconsin is now experiencing severe and worsening water problems—massive pollution caused by concentrated animal feeding operations and huge water-table damage caused by excessive pumping from private high capacity wells.

It is this same disabled DNR that worked hand in glove with Waukesha to develop and promote the city’s Great Lakes diversion proposal, claiming falsely that there were no reasonable alternatives.

To me it all seems to be of a pattern. Waukesha (and Waukesha County) is the epicenter of the Wisconsin Tea Party philosophy that natural resources are there for the taking, while conservation, preservation, and responsible use are for others. Waukesha is a wealthy, hyper-development suburb, and Scott Walker’s primary financial and power base.

Now, with the Waukesha diversion approved, this same disabled DNR will be the agency charged with monitoring and compliance. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will have the primary responsibility of making sure the city follows its agreement and its promises to the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces. The DNR will also be responsible for watching the city’s wastewater and taking action if too much pollution is discharged into the Root River, and through Racine.

Perhaps it’s unfair to focus just on the Wisconsin DNR.  After all, eight governors were too busy to attend the meeting on June 21, apparently having more important things to do than participate in a precedent-setting decision affecting the future of the Great Lakes. Further, the two Great Lakes premiers apparently saw the diversion proposal as a minor technical issue to be delegated to junior staff. These two premiers, while not having a final vote, could have been enormously influential if they had seen Waukesha as the important political issue it really is.

So what to do? It’s hard to imagine what to do since over 11,000 concerned citizens, along with many environmental, governmental, and Tribal/First Nations organizations went on record as opposing Waukesha—to no avail.

Perhaps one step is up to the people of Wisconsin—get rid of Walker and see that the Department of Natural Resources is restored to it’s former self, operating professionally in accordance with good science.

Perhaps another step is for all the other people around the Great Lakes to let their elected representatives know that the Lakes are a priority, and that diversion requests are important political questions, not minor technical issues. Perhaps it would be good to also let them know that if they don’t take their obligation to the Great Lakes seriously they too will be replaced.


Jim Nies

Kagawong, Ontario and Whitewater, Wisconsin