The Waukesha water diversion precedent should not proceed

A recent television documentary on the current plight of the once-mighty Colorado River, that courses from high in the Rocky Mountains of that western US state more than a thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean, is instructive in light of the current proposed Lake Michigan water taking by the Wisconsin city of Waukesha.

The Colorado River, over much of its long run, has been diminished to something akin to a stream.

The river is largely glacial in origin and so the retraction of the glaciers due to global warming accounts for a good portion of the lowered flow of the Colorado River.

But what is of particular interest to people living across the continent on the Great Lakes is that what remains of this river is daily being syphoned off and sent across the continental divide to the other side of the Rocky Mountains to satisfy the needs of the rapidly growing urban populations in, for example, Denver.

That means that, when the citizens of Denver make use of this water for cooking, lawn watering or toilet flushing, it leaves their homes and yards to enter their municipal sanitary and storm sewer systems, goes through their municipal sewage treatment plants and/or sewage lagoons and is essentially released back into the environment as clean water.

But, because it’s now on the western side of the continental divide and because, as we all know, water doesn’t run uphill, none of it makes its way back into the Colorado River watershed and, for this particular river, it is lost forever.

While that may not be entirely the case with the proposal of Waukesha, Wisconsin, this city in need of water proposes to siphon its additional needs out of Lake Michigan, the Great Lake that is at the same level as Lake Huron, under a loophole in the compact that guides such diversions.

Waukesha, or at least a good part of it, however, is located on the western side and beyond the Great Lakes Basin but straddles a portion of the basin, so it proposes to take from Lake Michigan. When that water is eventually returned to our sister Great Lake, it will be through the offices of the Root River, a body so contaminated it is listed as “impaired.” Even worse from an ecological standpoint, the returning water will be mixed with that coming from the Mississippi River Basin, without a real understanding of how that will impact the Great Lakes ecosystem that is already reeling from the impact of invasive species and other contamination.

Both Colorado and the Great Lakes owe much of their volume to the finite resource of glacial deposit.

In this demonstrable way (and dozens of other examples like it in the US, 20 to 30 major urban centres by at least one source) the Colorado River is to Lake Michigan as the City of Denver is to the Wisconsin city of Waukesha.

Waukesha’s main argument (aside from a disputed need for a new water supply) is that the community straddles the Great Lakes Basin watershed and also the Mississippi watershed, and so, under the agreed upon terms of the Great Lakes Compact, it should be able to take water from Lake Michigan based on their foot in that basin, as long as it is returned to the original source through as close a channel as possible.

The problem is, Waukesha is one of several cities, all of them in the US, that also straddle the Great Lakes Basin, plus some other watershed, and so the Wisconsin example ends up being a test use for other water hungry communities whose water supplies will end up mixing waters from different basins and ecosystems.

It may sound trite to say that this is “the edge of the wedge” but, in this case, the adage fits the bill.

The southwestern US may have its water problems but, in our own case in this region of the continent, there is every expectation that our Ontario and US Midwestern urban communities will continue to grow and require water, not to mention the important agricultural lands of southern, southwestern Ontario and that part of eastern Ontario that is not part of the Ottawa watershed.

In fact, in this province, we have to go almost as far north as Timmins before we encounter rivers that do not constitute part of the Great Lakes Basin watershed.

That’s a lot of Northern water helping to constantly replenish Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior, but, while there may be a lot of fresh water in the Great Lakes—an identifiable portion of the world’s entire supply is in fact located in these fine water bodies—and despite the flow running into Lake Superior and Lake Huron from the vast Northern wilderness south of the Arctic watershed, the bulk of the water residing in the Great Lakes remains a finite legacy of glacial deposits in its origin.

To take water from this source, mix it with waters from outside the Great Lakes Basin and then shuttle it (and much of the accumulated phosphorus and other pollutants from the urban environment that remain after treatment) back into the lakes through a badly damaged river is patently a bad idea. To multiply this by the 20 to 30 estimated other urban centres waiting on the sidelines to see how this proposal plays out is to invite ecological disaster.

Because it is guaranteed to be precedent setting, the Waukesha diversion is a bad idea and one that cannot proceed.