Waukesha Diversion Week!
To the city of Waukesha, that unassuming Milwaukee suburb, the request seemed like a no-brainer, and coming as it did before the Great Lakes Compact was signed, seemed like a sure bet. The aquifer from which it drew its water contained naturally-occurring radium, and the growing community of 70,000 felt that they needed a cleaner and safer source. Reasonably, they looked not-very-far-east, some 20 miles, to the shores of Lake Michigan, which contains some six quadrillion gallons of water, and provides more than a billion gallons a day for drinking. The initial Waukesha request, at less than 20 million gallons a day, seemed reasonable.
And certainly, it made sense. They were a “collar county”, straddling the Basin, with the eastern part of the county firmly within its natural borders. The Compact provides exceptions for straddling cities and counties, provided that they can meet a strict set of standards.
(Images from Waukeshadiversion.org)
Now, if you were the town fathers of Waukesha, you would feel that there is a certain didactic madness to any opposition, a sort of pecksniff tyranny not just of geology, but of pedagogy as well.
After all, they are right there. It’s so close. And they can meet the requirement of the Compact, by being able to return 100% of the water, treated, back to the Lakes. (That’s one of the great victories of the Compact: a vanishingly small percentage of water is actually totally removed from the system.) Waukesha’s plan (which you can read in full here) is to use the Root River system to return the water back to the Lake. Their claim is that by diverting other streams, they can flush out and dilute whatever traces of pollution remain after treatment.
(This dilution has a long history. Chicago, the original diverters (more on that this week) used another huge diversion, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and later the North Shore Channel, as part of the plan to reverse the fetid Chicago River and flush sewage away from the lake, to the Illinois and then to the Mississippi. Chicago claimed that the huge amount of water would dissolve any waste. The people of St. Louis disagreed felt differently. But that’s another story for another time, although it is tightly related.)
It all seems pretty cut-and-dried. There was an incredibly lengthy political process, and a constant revision of the plan (the current ask is for just a little over 10 million gallons a day). And as we talked about on Monday, the plan, with more revisions (including limiting the area that can draw water) was backed by a board representing the Great Lakes governors and premiers. It just has to go for a final vote in Chicago scheduled for next week. Chances are it will pass, now. Think of the board as a Senate committee recommending a bill’s passage before going to the floor.
That doesn’t mean it is a slam dunk, of course. Minnesota abstained from voting, which might signify that they have yet to make a decision. And the vote has to be unanimous, with all states approving, meaning it is in the hands of men like Walker and Rauner and Kasich and Pence and Andrew Cuomo. Interestingly, though, the history of the Great Lakes Compact didn’t have the partisan divide that you’d expect. Tough Republicans who don’t really care much about the environment turned soft when it comes to protecting these natural resources- at least in terms of diversions. It’s a mutually-assured destruction sort of thing. No one wants to let some dinky town in central Illinois drain the lake.
But does Waukesha count as a dinky little town? It wouldn’t seem so. In many ways it seemed to fit the bill pretty nicely. So why did it take so long? What was the opposition? Who could be opposed to this, and why?
The answer, which we’ll get to tomorrow, showed an important direction for intelligent activism, one which understands the politics of the situation, and also the gravity.
Because here’s the thing: a drainage basin literally means that any drop of water, left untouched, will end up in the same place. If you could somehow stand on the line of the Great Lakes Basin, and squeeze two eyedroppers, one would go to Lake Michigan, and the other down to the Mississippi. It’s that simple. The opposition to the Waukesha Diversion see it, with good cause, as a tidal wave. Once water from one side starts spilling over, it can roll west, unfettered, and destroy the greatest collection of fresh water in the world.