Governors from the eight Great Lakes states agreed Tuesday to allow a Wisconsin city to start pumping millions of gallons a day from Lake Michigan, marking the largest diversion of water from the lakes since Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.
The unanimous decision favoring Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb of 70,000 about 17 miles west of the lake, is the first test of a 2008 legal compact intended to prevent thirsty communities or countries outside the Great Lakes region from dipping into the world's largest source of fresh surface water.
Like parts of Chicago, Waukesha is just outside the subcontinental divide separating areas of the Midwest that drain into the Great Lakes from those where water flows toward the Mississippi River. Waukesha's request challenged politicians, scientists and advocates who feared it would set a precedent that cleared the way for potentially bigger diversions, such as pipelines connecting the lakes to Las Vegas or other arid, fast-growing cities.
What the Wisconsin city ended up getting is considerably more limited. Several officials and observers involved in the long-running debate think the deal could discourage others from attempting a bid for access to water that the Great Lakes region zealously guards as its own.
Before the eight states approved the new pact, Waukesha agreed to recycle all of the water it draws from Lake Michigan and return it to a river that flows into the lake. Another provision limits the amount pumped to the city to an average of 8 million gallons a day, down from the original request of 10 million.
Perhaps even more important is the area served by the new source of water is restricted to Waukesha's current borders, meaning the city can't use it to advance suburban sprawl.
"They've set a very high bar," said Peter Annin, co-director of a Northland College water center and author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars." "If you are a water manager in another suburb or rural community, this just doesn't seem like an attractive or inexpensive option."
Waukesha sought access to Lake Michigan water because some of its community wells are contaminated with naturally occurring radium — a problem also faced by several Chicago suburbs.
Great Lakes governors were swayed in part by research showing some of the groundwater now being drawn by Waukesha would flow toward Lake Michigan if it no longer is used by the city. Another argument in Waukesha's favor was that access to Lake Michigan water would free the city of having to treat water from its radium-contaminated wells, which creates radioactive sludge.
"The vote today means the City can now move forward in providing a reliable, sustainable, and safe supply of drinking water for its residents," Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said in a statement.
More than a decade in the making, the Waukesha diversion was authorized under a limited exception to the water protection agreement between the eight states and two Canadian provinces on the Great Lakes.
Regional officials brokered their compact after an Ontario firm unveiled a plan in 1998 to ship 158 million gallons a year from Lake Superior to Asia, intending to create a global market for fresh water. Given the rapid growth of many drought-plagued states and countries, some planners and financial analysts say water will be become more valuable than oil during the coming century.
Unlike what Waukesha is planning to do, Chicago doesn't return water to the Great Lakes. The city fended off challenges to its 1900 diversion from Lake Michigan and under a 1967 Supreme Court decree draws up to 2.1 billion gallons a day while discharging treated sewage into waterways that drain toward the Mississippi.
Lawsuits could still delay the Waukesha diversion. Officials in Racine, for instance, have vehemently opposed the proposal because Waukesha's treated wastewater would flow through their community before reaching Lake Michigan.
Waukesha estimates its project will cost $334 million and add hundreds of dollars a year to residential water bills. The city had no reasonable alternative, Reilly said.
Environmental groups that opposed the deal were still studying the final agreement but applauded restrictions on the amount of water to be drawn by Waukesha and the area served by the diversion.
"In the end you've got a city that's going to pay a lot of money for clean water," said Molly Flanagan, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes. "What kind of victory is that?"