Tuesday, November 28, 2006

New Water Diversion Would Derail Great Lakes Protection

New Berlin, a Milwaukee suburb straddling the western boundary of the Great Lakes basin, seeks DNR approval to pump Lake Michigan water to its residents living outside the watershed.The New Berlin request may prompt other communities to seek diversions before adoption of the Great Lakes Compact, and thus derail efforts to ratify the historic protections signed by the governors of the eight Great Lakes states nearly a year ago.

"As a signatory of the Compact and chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, Wisconsin Gov. James Doyle committed to the steps toward ratification that are detailed in the agreement," said Joel Brammeier, associate director for policy at the Great Lakes Alliance. "That means passage by each state legislature and approval by Congress."

The Alliance applauds the DNR's decision to notify the governors and the public about its receipt of the New Berlin application last spring, as well as its current efforts to seek comments about how to proceed with it. Yet a failure to formally consult the Great Lakes governors runs afoul of the U.S. Water Resources Development Act, the existing regulatory framework of Great Lakes protections. Under WRDA, any proposal to divert water from the Great Lakes is subject to regional review and approval or veto by the region's governors.

"Consideration of an application by New Berlin for a new water diversion is clearly at odds with regional Compact ratification and with WRDA," said Cheryl Mendoza, Alliance water conservation program manager. "It's an irreconcilable position."

The group counters a key New Berlin assertion that its request doesn't qualify as a diversion because all water withdrawn from Lake Michigan would be returned. In fact, New Berlin is premature in seeking to capitalize on a provision of the Compact allowing so-called straddling communities to apply for and receive Great Lakes water.

"While the spirit of the application was apparently in good faith, it is wholly counterproductive for municipalities to propose applications for new diversions under provisions of the Compact prior to state legislative approvals and federal ratification," the letter states. The comments also fault New Berlin for "glaringly weak" conservation measures, a key strategy for meeting water needs that any applicant for Great Lakes water must demonstrate under the proposed Compact. Better conservation during the next several years could, by New Berlin's own admission, meet its immediate water needs. This would also help the city become "Compact compliant" - as well as buy time to ratify the Compact. "A pillar of the eventual Compact standards is the achievement of aggressive and consistent conservation practices across the Great Lakes basin. New Berlin's proximity to Lake Michigan does not excuse its responsibility to use water resources wisely and efficiently."

Other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces have also voiced serious concerns:
  • New York: The New Berlin application is without key studies, complete data, adequate water supply descriptions, enough system and geological maps, and “descriptions of the situation and feasible options.
  • Illinois: The application could be strengthened with data of "forecasts of future water use, both inside and outside the Great Lakes basin." Furthermore, New Berlin could extend its sprinkling ban, evaluate the effectiveness of its conservation planning, and expand its search for well-water alternatives.
  • Michigan: The state will not begin a formal review until a full-scale diversion application is received, and the Attorney General has said New Berlin cannot proceed without a formal application that meets federal WRDA standards.
  • Ontario: New Berlin hasn’t developed a conservation plan for the diverted water; hasn't undertaken individual and cumulative environmental impact assessments regarding the diverted water; and didn't define or include industry standards and other usage data. (Canadian provinces in the basin have an advisory role, but no veto authority.)

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