Hail Mary

Waukesha is close to accomplishing what once seemed nigh-on impossible: diverting water from mighty Lake Michigan. Getting this far wasn’t easy.

When Waukesha won the unanimous approval required from eight Midwestern governors in June to tap into Lake Michigan water under the Great Lakes Compact, Mayor Shawn Reilly was blasé. He said he’d always been optimistic it would pass. Even a 20 percent cut in annual output didn’t seem to bother him.

But the city’s victory was no slam dunk and followed a long and tortured history. Two previous Waukesha mayors had pushed conflicting proposals, and Reilly, elected in 2014, had made settling the issue a key goal that he wouldn’t leave to chance. After submitting a final application to the compact’s governing body in January, Reilly and Water Utility manager Dan Duchniak crisscrossed the Great Lakes states to sell it.

They hoped to capitalize on a loophole written into the 2008 compact. The agreement blocks communities outside the Great Lakes Basin from using lake water, with an exception: Municipalities such as Waukesha in counties that straddle the edge of the watershed can apply for access. Opposition surfaced even before the application, with some 40 environmental groups joining to fight the request as a misuse of one of the world’s greatest natural resources.

To overcome objections, the two officials launched a full-court press that focused most heavily on Minnesota and Michigan. At a March hearing in Minnesota, a state senator had urged Gov. Mark Dayton, “to just say no.” And in May, the Michigan Senate had passed a resolution opposing the request, while two Michigan members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, implored Gov. Rick Snyder to vote against the plan, calling it “a precedent-setting setback.”

Duchniak testified for the city at both the Minnesota hearing and one in Michigan. He and Reilly met with an aide to Gov. Dayton twice and visited assistants to Gov. Snyder twice. They flew to Albany, N.Y., took a three-day road trip through Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio in mid-April, and phoned aides to the governors of Illinois and Indiana.

Julie Ekman of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources says her state’s inquiries about the application came from a spirit of “being careful, thoughtful, wanting to be thorough.”

In these meetings, the Waukesha officials put a face on their water issue, which until then had remained far-flung for the seven non-Wisconsin governors and their staffs. Reilly and Duchniak pleaded the case for why they needed the water – as an alternative to a depleted deep aquifer and dangerous, radium-contaminated ground wells. And they argued for the safety of the city’s plan to return treated water to Lake Michigan via the Root River. Finally, to assuage concerns, Waukesha calmly accepted an eleventh-hour reduction in the service area and a ceiling of 8.2 million gallons a day by 2050 instead of the requested 10.1 million. Some opponents saw the original application, which included 84 percent of the surrounding Town of Waukesha, as expansionist. Reilly and Duchniak explained that the extra land was needed under Wisconsin’s 2008 compact law, which requires applications to match long-term land use plans.

Elsewhere, Waukesha’s water coup remains deeply unpopular. “I monitor [Lake Michigan] levels every day,” says a furious Racine Mayor John Dickert, “and we tell our citizens and tourists that they should not be swimming. We now have to do the same thing for the (Root) river, and we need to know who’s going to pay for that.”

In late August, mayors bordering Lake Michigan, including Dickert, demanded a hearing to air their concerns about the diversion, potentially as a precursor to a lawsuit. (By press time, nothing had been filed.) Still, the Waukesha plan’s implementation remains years away; the city won’t finish building its pipeline to draw lake water through the city of Oak Creek’s water works until 2020 or later.

‘Hail Mary’ appears in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.