Climate change is lowering Great Lakes water levels. Should Waukesha be allowed to tap into the Lakes?

The City of Waukesha, WI, a growing suburb of Milwaukee, is roughly five years into an effort to tap the Great Lakes for a water source. However, because of climate change and other threats to the Great Lakes Basin, Waukesha officials may eventually realize, one way or another, that pursuing an alternative water source might be more sensible. 

Great Lakes in wintertime. Climate change is leading to less ice, more evaporation

It's no secret that, partially due to climate change, the water levels in the Great Lakes are getting very low. It's becoming such a problem that six U.S. Senators from Great Lakes states are upset with President Obama for overlooking the Lakes in his Climate Action Plan. Here are a few excerpts of the letter to the President from Senators Levin, Durbin, Franken, Brown, Schumer, and Stabenow:

"We applaud the Administration for releasing a climate action plan...but were disappointed that the Great Lakes were not mentioned.

"This year, Great Lakes water levels reached new historic lows severely hampering commercial shipping, jeopardizing recreational boating and fishing, devastating the tourism industry, threatening electric power generation, compromising water supply infrastructure, and exacerbating problems caused by invasive species.

“In particular, the impacts of climate change on commerce and navigation should be of utmost importance. The Great Lakes Navigation System carries over 160 million tons of cargo annually.

“Addressing the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes region is essential for the long-term health, safety, and prosperity of our country.”

Why is climate change linked to lower water levels in the Great Lakes? Some models predict that climate change will increase evaporation in the Great Lakes due to warmer temperatures, especially since reduced ice cover in winter leads to more evaporation. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published a great piece connecting Lake Michigan’s record low water levels, climate change, evaporation, loss of winter ice, and the consequences for local communities. Although some uncertainty exists, as projected increases in precipitation may somewhat replenish low water levels, many regional officials are working today to minimize future climate risks on the Great Lakes.

The six Senators on the letter to the President are not the only elected officials concerned about the Great Lakes. In 2008, the Great Lakes Compact was signed by the Governors of IL, IN, MI, MN, NY, OH, PA and WI, as a legally-binding water-management pact to ensure protection of the Great Lakes Basin.

This brings us back to Waukesha. The Milwaukee suburb’s proposal to divert nearly 11 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan must win approval not only from the state of Wisconsin but also from the seven other Governors who signed the Great Lakes Compact. This step ensures that any Basin diversion proposals fulfill all of the Compact’s legal requirements. As the first proposal of its kind to be considered under the Compact, Waukesha’s proposal sets a precedent for future diversion decisions. Many communities may be waiting to follow in Waukesha’s footsteps and submit their own diversion applications.

The Waukesha proposal, expected to cost at least $180 million, with the hope of $50 million covered by federal dollars, is currently under review by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR will begin to take public comments in the next few months on Waukesha’s application. I think this public comment period will be very important, especially for highlighting climate impacts and Great Lakes vulnerabilities, as well as other viable, cost-effective alternatives for Waukesha’s water source. You can check here to stay updated on the status, or check my colleague Karen Hobbs’ blog for more on Waukesha.

About the Authors

Aliya Haq

Deputy Director, Clean Power Plan Initiative

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