Should Waukesha be able to stick a straw into Lake Michigan? Yes.

The 2008 Great Lakes Compact, a landmark agreement among the Great Lakes states, was designed to protect the Great Lakes from outside diversions of water. It also governs its own exceptions to a general prohibition on diversions, including the use of water by communities within Great Lakes states that straddle the watershed.

The compact was the result of more than two decades of negotiation between the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces, the environmental and conservation communities and businesses. Once adopted by Congress, it gave critical new powers to those of us in the region, to protect against water being diverted to the arid west or being used to transport materials outside the Great Lakes basin. Its adoption by the eight lakes-adjacent states, two provinces and Congress was an historic step that required cooperation, compromise and commitment.

It is a powerful and historic tool that enables the Great Lakes region to determine its own destiny.

In May, the regional body created by the compact recommended approval of an application by Waukesha, Wis., to divert water to the suburban Milwaukee city, and earlier this week, the Compact Council approved it. Waukesha is a “straddling community” as defined in the compact, lying just outside the watershed.

Waukesha’s application came with nearly 10 years of fact-based research, and the application’s approval imposed a number of requirements. Those include a nearly 50 percent reduction in the geographic area to be served by Great Lakes water and a significant reduction in the amount of water that Waukesha is permitted to use -- the two biggest concerns that were voiced on the issue.

The imposition of those conditions will ultimately create a net ecological benefit to the Great Lakes by eliminating an ongoing removal of millions of gallons of water from the lakes through Waukesha’s current groundwater withdrawal. Saying yes to Waukesha means an end to this continuing diversion of Great Lakes water to the Mississippi River watershed and ensures that 100 percent of future water consumed by Waukesha will be returned to Lake Michigan.

In addition, approval also means that both the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem and that of Waukesha citizens will be protected. Approval brings an end to the threat of human and ecosystem exposure to a radioactive, cancer-causing material (radium) by stopping it from being pumped to the surface -- a primary reason Waukesha sought the diversion.

Despite these benefits, some continue to argue that we in Great Lakes should have just said no.

It was Thomas Jefferson who once said, “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”

In the test case of Waukesha, the Compact Council set a strong precedent by creating conditions, checks and balances that will protect the Great Lakes watershed. In addition to limits on water and geography, it also mandated that Waukesha implement a pharmaceuticals recycling program (something that should be required everywhere). It imposed measures to protect wetlands. It requires a monitoring and reporting program that must be adhered to by Waukesha and Wisconsin. Finally, the council added provisions that markedly strengthen enforcement.

The compact was not written to stand as a categorical “no” to any diversion proposal by a straddling community within the watershed. If this application, with its elaborate requirements, conditions and checks cannot be approved, then none could.

Denying Waukesha’s request may have been the easiest or most politically expedient answer, but it would have ultimately weakened the collaborative system that makes the Great Lakes Compact so strong. It would bring into question decades of debate, discussion and ultimate compromise between those who created it. And it would weaken our collective resolve to protect the lakes from the wholesale diversion of water.

Some are now arguing that the council’s decisions may be difficult to enforce, or that Wisconsin lacks the tools -- or worse, the will -- to enforce the conditions. What they miss is that the council (jointly) and each state (individually) have the ability and legal authority to assure that the conditions are enforced. That means that Michigan alone or Michigan with other states can take action to compel compliance. That process, as designed, is open and transparent to the public.

The approval of Waukesha’s request is a clear recognition that sound science, the protection of public health and the protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem can all be accomplished if we as a region are willing to work together. It rejects emotion and political expediency and proves that, working together, this region is capable of using its new power wisely.

In short, it proves that the Great Lakes Compact works and can continue to work to make certain our water stays where it belongs long into the future. Our children deserve nothing less.

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Tony Infante
Fri, 06/24/2016 - 5:17pm
Well done Mr. Rustem. It appears that in this first big test, the Compact has worked -an admirable achievement for the many that worked on the complex agreement.
Sat, 06/25/2016 - 12:23am
"The camel in the Arabian tale begged and received permission to insert his nose into the desert tent." Mr. Rustem seems to have failed to notice how our government agencies operate. My experience has leaves me with doubts about their will to follow through on the spirit of any legislation, their will to hold best interests of the citizens above the wants of government, the will to hold any other government agency or program accountable for performance, etc. I am disappointed in Mr. Rustem's for invoking the cancer scare with radium. I notice he doesn't mention how many case of cancer have been recorded in that so valuable 10 years of history Waukesha brought to the table. Mr. Rustem doesn't mention how many of those cancer cases have been verified as radium caused, he doesn't compare that experience with similar population segments in the Great Lakes region, how does it compare to the case patterns of people that work in mining operation where radium is disturbed. He simply says cancer, radium, and leaves us to believe this action will prevent additional cases. I am disappointed with such a tactic. Mr. Rustem didn't seem to explain why Waukesha needs [asked for] the water? Was it to save money, was it a health issue, was it simply for political convenience [to grow the town and jobs]?
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 5:25am
Thank you. You may have changed my mind on this issue. Hopefully, exceptions such as this are few and the standards for returned water should be even higher than for communities in the watershed.
Dick Hooker
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 7:48am
I am grateful to Mr. Rustem for so clearly and succinctly presenting the case to allow diversion in this instance, and heartened to hear of all the science and planning that occurred prior to the decision. The Great Lakes are a resource we all cherish; indeed, they more than anything set us apart and make the cold, wintry north such a wondrous place to live, eat and play. At some point, the rest of the nation, if not the world, may look hungrily at the Great Lakes Basin, so I'm very glad the Compact and its members "have our back."
John Saari
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 9:05am
Congratulations. Using more common sense, not influenced by politics
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 10:41am
Great, a precedent has now been set. Don't be mislead, will or no will, the next city that wants water will get it. There is no turning back now.
Dave T
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 10:08pm
Joseph, I agree. This is the most damning precedent we could ever make especially when Mr. Rustem has not given any reasons, whatsoever, WHY Waukesha needs the water. Only justifications. Will Mr. Rustem please list the reasons for this diversion, please?
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 11:00am
People in a state should have equal rights with equal status, not parsed by watershed or wealth. I live as the citizens of Flint in the Flint River watershed, but I live in a community with a viable tax base and never ruled by an emergency manager. The Flint Water Crisis has taught us that every citizen should be treated equally as possible. Compromises are needed in our politics. There is black and white. No Great Lakes water to irrigate an American desert or to recharge mismanaged aquifers. T M Haley Mt Morris, MI
Mary Kay Thayer
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 12:33pm
I was opposed to granting water access to Waukesha WI, until I read the "Bridge" explanation. Well done Phil Powers,,,
Carl Ver Beek
Mon, 06/27/2016 - 9:26am
Bill Rustem has a history of sorting out tough issues and did it again on this one. I assumed that Waukesha would be denied, and I share the concern about a bad precedent, but it appears that this is a good precedent. The states bordering on the Great Lakes are in a unique position of managing this great asset. They have the capacity to do so wisely and did so on this request.
Mon, 06/27/2016 - 10:53am
We are the only state surrounded by the Great Lakes. We are the most reliant of the states for our fresh water industries, fishing, boating, etc., therefore we have the most to lose from mismanagement of the resource. Do you think Indiana, Illinois, Ohio et al would lose as much at Michigan? Do not delude yourself into thinking their interest is as dependent as ours in protecting the water? Look at their past history regarding pollution, water management, etc. We cannot keep Chicago from allowing invasives in or telling us how much actual water they are diverting from the Great Lakes. Last I heard they are under reporting useage by 15%. Good luck in monitoring Wakeshaw and the other government entities getting in line for their share.. Thank you Governor. Get you thirty pieces of silver and move on. . .
Phil L.
Tue, 06/28/2016 - 5:44pm
Wow - the list of people who've commented is impressive. You wonder if there was an all hands on deck call for Mr. Rustem's commentary. Great Lakes Legacy Project/League of Conservation Voters Two Varnum Law attorneys Monroe County politician (R) And a person who may be related to past Chief of Staff for Cotter and present Public Service Commissioner (apologies if I'm way off, but it is a distinctive last name.) They did cause me to read the commentary twice. I'm still not sure it was the right thing to do.