Opinion| Great Lakes: Let Them Draw Water

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I guess I am going to be the odd man out here.

I find I just can’t agree with our city council joining the protest, launched by some of the mayors of municipalities along both sides of the Great Lakes and some environmental groups, against allowing the Wisconsin municipality of Waukesha to draw up to 8.2 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan.

After all, from what I have read, it isn’t as if the water is going to just disappear; after use it will be treated and returned to the lake, just as it is with other municipalities, such as ours.

The rub in this case is that Waukesha, a community of about 70,000 people 28 kilometres west of Lake Michigan whose deep groundwater aquifer is severely depleted and contaminated with naturally occurring radium, a carcinogen, lies just outside the Great Lakes basin.

A provision in the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement ratified in 2008 to protect against large-scale water diversions out of the Great Lakes basin, allows communities straddling the basin to have access to Great Lakes water under certain circumstances and with conditions.

The governors of the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, back in June unanimously approved diverting Lake Michigan water to Waukesha but imposed conditions, including that water withdrawn must be treated and returned to the basin.

Keith Matheny of The Detroit Free Press reported at the time that Snyder in an interview said essential to his approval of the plan were amendments strengthening oversight of the agreement’s terms.

“We put tight conditions on this,” he said. “If you are using the water, you have to treat it and return it to the basin, and then there are audit and enforcement mechanisms addressing any shortfall in the long-term implementation of those actions.”

In an earlier story, Methany reported that a 2005 study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey found that 30% of the groundwater that Waukesha was withdrawing leaves the Great Lakes Basin via its ultimate discharge into the Mississippi River.

“If adopted by the Compact Council, this action (approving Waukesha’s request) will stop the current loss of over half a billion gallons of water per year from the Great Lakes Basin,” stated Michigan’s document of findings submitted at a meeting of Great Lakes Basin states.

“Saying no to the diversion would, in some fashion, continue the removal of water from the basin — which is ironic,” said Jon Allan, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes.

So, I have to ask, why do some people see adding water to the basin as a bad thing?

The plan has the approval of eight governors and, although they didn’t have a vote, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec had input and, while Ontario initially expressed some concern, neither have voiced outright objections.

If not one of the states and provinces is against the plan, why are some municipalities? What do they know that the states and provinces don’t?

Then, too, there is the fact that, as Kenneth Armstrong of SooToday reported last week, a permit issued by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) allows Essar Steel Algoma to take more than 1.1 billion litres of water per day from St. Marys River.

To put that into perspective, Armstrong wrote, a public utility for the city of Vancouver reports that it pumps more than one billion litres through the taps of its 2.5 million residential customers per day.

Brenda Stenta, corporate communications for Essar Steel Algoma, told Armstrong the plant typically uses about 750 million litres of water a day, mostly for ‘non-contact’ cooling. Non-contact water is recycled through cooling towers and released back into the river.

“All contact water is cleaned at our water treatment facility and then released back into the river,” said Stenta.

Armstrong quoted Gary Wheeler, spokesperson for MOECC, as saying the volume of water used is not uncommon for a large industrial plant.

A public consultation was held for the application between Feb. 11 and Mar. 15 of 2015, but no comments were received by the ministry and the permit was issued Sept. 11.

Yet there is a mounting, albeit probably too late, clamour about Great Lakes  water being allowed to go to Waukesha, some complaining that the public was not allowed input.

Coun. Steve Butland, during debate on the issue that resulted in council voting unanimously to have Mayor Christian Provenzano write a letter of protest to the International Joint Commission, said he discovered in researching the subject that Nestle Canada removes 3.6 million litres of water a day for bottling from an aquifer at Aberfoyle, a community near Guelph.

But I see throwing Nestles Canada into the Waukesha situation as a red herring, since the water-taking at Aberfoyle is from an aquifer far from the Great Lakes.

I see it as a separate issue but one that warrants discussion because of the $3.71 price for a million gallons not only enjoyed by Nestle but by several other bottled-water companies in Ontario.

U.S. Reps. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, in a joint statement after the governors’ approval, expressed strong disagreement with the decision.

“There is nothing more instinctively wrong to the people of Michigan than to allow for the diversion of the precious, finite resource our magnificent lakes provide,” they stated.

But Snyder said, “It’s easy to say no and just walk away. I think it’s more appropriate to say yes with conditions, because it’s a better answer for the Great Lakes.”

And it should be noted some environmental groups are now backing off.

Marc Smith, policy director for the environmental nonprofit National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, told Matheny that while Waukesha’s initial application did not meet compact requirements, the work by technical staffs from the Great Lake states and the city has brought about a better pact.

Smith said he is not concerned about the ruling setting a precedent that sends many more basin-straddling communities with water problems looking toward the Great Lakes. He cited the large cost Waukesha is paying for infrastructure, estimated at more than $200 million, as well as the hoops the city was forced to jump through in the compact deliberation process.

Jennifer Caddick, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes, said her group is encouraged by the additional conditions placed on Waukesha’s request.

“Enforcement is definitely the beginning of the next phase,” she said.

Not only can individual Great Lakes governors challenge Wisconsin or Waukesha failing to abide by the terms of the withdrawal, but impacted groups or individuals can also raise a challenge – a fisherman on the Root River in Racine, Wis., which will be used to return treated water from Waukesha to Lake Michigan, could raise concerns if that process somehow impacts the fishery, Smith said.

To boil this down, I guess I come at in the same way I do with regard to foreign aid. Where many claim we should look after our own first, I see us all, worldwide, as human beings and as such we should do as much as we can for the unfortunate everywhere.

So after researching the issue at hand I cannot find fault with the governors approving Waukesha’s request for 8.2 million gallons of Great Lakes water a day, especially so since the agreement demands that the water taken will be returned after treatment and there is the added bonus in that Waukesha groundwater that previously flowed to the Mississippi will now remain in the Great Lakes Basin.

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Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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  • david mark

    You are not the only ‘odd man out’ Doug. I completely agree with you.
    The protests by some come across to me as soap box standing in an effort to garner attention to what some view as the ‘in thing’ to do…..protest perceived abuse of a natural renewable resource, potable water. Great to pay attention to an issue such as this but unfortunately they do it while ignoring the facts. As you pointed out, bottled water taken by Nestle has nothing to do with the Great Lakes and the only thing that should be looked at with this issue is the low cost they pay for the water extracted from the aquifer.