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

Aliya Haq

Posted August 7, 2013

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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.

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DavidAug 7 2013 02:57 PM

Nice piece but I suggest amending it to include details of why Waukesha withdrawing water from Lake Michigan is controversial given that many cities ringing the Great Lakes pull water from the lakes.

Josh MogermanAug 7 2013 05:29 PM

David, the Great Lakes Compact basically says only communities in the Great Lakes Basin should be allowed to tap this source. Waukesha, though it is a suburb of Milwaukee, actually sits outside the Great Lakes Basin. It is too far away.

Bill McClenahan Aug 8 2013 11:05 AM

Waukesha would have no impact on lake levels. Its daily withdrawal would be 1 one-millionth of 1 percent of the volume of the Great Lakes. It will have return flow of the same amount or more. Zero impact on lake levels.

The Great Lakes Compact protects lake levels. Approval of Waukesha's application would prove that the Compact works.

Josh MogermanAug 8 2013 08:40 PM


Waukesha would take a small amount... Lowell, IN would take a small amount... Rockford would take a small amount... New Mexico and Las Vegas would take a small amount...

The point of the Great Lakes Compact is to draw a line to make clear where it is and is not appropriate to tap this resource. Waukesha is past that line. As are many communities that have similar aquifer issues. If the line moves for Waukesha, why shouldn't it move for others...and thus, a problem arises.

Thomas JamesAug 12 2013 11:49 AM

Contrary to what Josh stated, Waukesha is not too far out of the basin to draw water from the Great Lakes. It is too far to unilaterally draw water - it falls into a specific exception carved out for communities in counties that straddle the subcontinental divide which require all of the Compact states to approve a diversion before such diversion is made. Requirements placed on such communities include returning a significant portion of the water diverted. Waukesha's proposition will be able to return at least 100% of the water diverted, possibly even returning more water to the lakes than it diverts. An approval for Waukesha does not "move the line", it is exactly where the line already exists.

References to places like New Mexico and Las Vegas are not relevant to discussions on the Compact because they fall outside of the approved area for Great Lakes water diversions according to the Compact, whereas communities like Waukesha do not.

His alarmist statements regarding various communities taking small amounts of water is only relevant if the Compact fails to function - if the Compact states repeatedly approve diversion proposals that do not include appropriate return flow. As long as all communities approved adhere to the compact and return the water they use in full, there is no issue here.

It is useful to note that the reason Waukesha is seeking Great Lakes water is not due to an adversity to expense in seeking local water - it is that local geography physically prevents the local aquifer from recharging as it would in other areas, making it impossible to continue to draw safely from the local deep aquifer. Local shallow aquifers are part of protected wetlands, and also cannot be used.

Marie Aug 12 2013 08:34 PM

Hello from Waukesha. Thank you for your timely article. I don't know Thomas James, but Bill McClenahan is the very well compensated lobbyist for the Waukesha Water Utility. Bill is paid thousands of dollars each month to help Waukesha get Lake Michigan water. Rather than helping Waukesha families learn about water conservation or fund water conservation best management practices, the Waukesha Water Utility funds Lobbyist Bill to monitor and comment on blogs that raise some thoughtful concerns about the diversion of Great Lakes water up and over the subcontinental divide. Tom: here is the question the Great Lake states need to ask, "What if the Compact didn't include an exception for communities in straddling counties to apply for a Great Lakes diversion". Furthermore, I live in the Waukesha Water Service Area and I can tell you first hand, it is a long way from Waukeha to the Subcontental Divide. And we should all be alarmed by Climate Change. There are indications that the deep aquifer is boucing back and there are ways to replenish the shallow and deep aquifer. Isn't time to let time to be innovative? The pipes and pumps method is old school.
Tom: Are you also being paid by the water utility or are you in the business of laying pipes and pumps? I guess we will never know.

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