Supersized Water Diversion Raises Questions for Great Lakes States

In about 10 days, I’m going to be relaxing on a sandy Lake Michigan beach in Northwest Indiana, with the dunes to my back and the lake stretching in front of me to the horizon.  And looking out at the lake, I’ll have Waukesha, Wisconsin on my mind, because Waukesha is looking at Lake Michigan, too.

As my colleague Karen Hobbs has noted here recently, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has just begun to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the City of Waukesha’s application to divert water out of the Great Lakes Basin.  As the first-ever water diversion to be considered under the new Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, Waukesha’s plan for taking water from Lake Michigan is subject to review by all eight of the Great Lakes states, and any one of them may disapprove it under the terms of the Compact.

Waukesha is a city of 71,000 located in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, but outside the boundary of the Great Lakes Basin.  The Fox River flows right through town, on its way – eventually – to the Mississippi River.  Ignoring the Fox, Waukesha and other nearby towns make use of groundwater for municipal purposes, but rapid growth and lack of coordinated management of the aquifer have led to substantial declines in groundwater levels.  Water quality violations have resulted in additional treatment costs for the city’s drinking water production, but officials have noted that declining groundwater levels, i.e., the growing demand on the system, are the concern that is driving Waukesha to try to import Great Lakes water.

During the housing boom in the first half of the last decade, Waukesha was adding new residential connections to its water system at about two percent per year – a rapid growth rate anywhere, but downright torrid for the industrial Midwest.  But since then, the rate of new connections has fallen almost in half, and even as new customers were still being added to the system, total water use dropped 15% from 2005 to 2010.  Just as significantly, peak summer demand – driven by lawn watering – also dropped.

Why is that?  Well, new toilets are way more efficient than old ones.  New clothes washers are way more efficient, too.  And Waukesha has taken two key steps in recent years that directly address peak water use outdoors.   Lawn watering is now limited to two days a week, and banned during mid-day hours when wind and evaporation lead to waste.  This is hardly a sacrifice, but rather an exercise of collective common sense.  Additionally, residential water rates have been revised to form a tiered rate structure, so that the greater the use of water, the greater the cost.   Price matters, especially for discretionary outdoor use. 

(For the technically inclined reader, Dr. Thomas Rockaway et al have a really interesting article in the February 2011 Journal of the American Water Works Association describing an observed nationwide trend of declining residential water use per household all across the US over the last couple decades, and exploring its causes.  The authors attribute much of the reduction in use to more water-efficient appliances.)

But Waukesha’s diversion proposal – several years in the making – remains unchanged.  Waukesha’s application for Great Lakes water reads like a time capsule from the days of the Housing Bubble.  In the city’s filing with the state, its housing, population, and demand for water all grow inexorably, spreading to the city limits and beyond to fill developable land on the urban fringe where no water and sewer service, and relatively few houses, currently exist.  Subdivisions that don’t yet exist will be demanding water on the hottest day of the summer of 2028 to water their lawns, wash their clothes, and flush their toilets the way everyone did in 2005.  And the capacity to divert 18.5 million gallons of water per day – nearly 3 times the city’s average daily use in 2010 – must be approved and built in this decade to standby, ready to serve, according to the city’s proposal. 

And buried deep in the application materials is the city’s hope for a $75 million federal grant to help finance this project, plus two loans from the State of Wisconsin.  Such a throwback to the Bubble Era is almost quaint.  Today, it’s really hard to imagine legislators from Michigan, New York, and the other Great Lakes states believing that using their constituents’ tax dollars for an out-of-basin diversion in Wisconsin would be a good idea.  But absent outside assistance, Waukesha’s residential ratepayers could see their utility bills quadruple to pay for the diversion, according to city estimates – a real buzz-kill for today’s Waukesha residents who will be expected to pay for supersized infrastructure to serve the last decade’s vision of the suburbia of tomorrow.

So here are few specific questions for Wisconsin’s DNR – and its counterparts in the seven other Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces – to mull over as it begins to pore through the paperwork from Waukesha:

1.  Should the “need” to divert water from the Great Lakes be based on pre-Downturn housing projections?  Will the “new normal” of slower growth and more compact development influence future water use?

2.  Should currently usable water supplies be abandoned to justify a larger diversion?

3.  Should out-of-basin aquifers that are currently in use be managed for their sustainable yield in future years, before a diversion from the Great Lakes is authorized?

4.  Should peak summer demands be met by oversizing the physical capacity of a diversion, when water storage or peak demand management might be available options?

5.  Should a proposal to approve a Great Lakes diversion be accompanied by an informed commitment by the applicant to actually pay the costs of the diversion?

Answers to these questions would make great beach reading this summer, at my spot in Indiana and all around the Great Lakes.