The Waukesha Decision: diverting our attention from being a water commoner

On June 21, eight American states that border the Great Lakes agreed to let the City of Waukesha (in Wisconsin) to withdraw water from Lake Michigan. This decision has generated a lot of conversation and concern about the Great Lakes, but what has been missing when we include questions about sewage, bottled water, trade, and the current water agreements responsible for governance?

Waukesha is home to 72,000 people and is 17 miles (27 kilometres) from the Great Lakes. However, it sits outside the watershed boundary. This watershed holds 20% of the world’s surface freshwater with only 1% of this water recharged by the water cycle. 99% of the Great Lakes are a glacial deposit left 10,000 years ago. Non-renewable water.

The decision was made using the Great Lakes Compact, which bans communities outside this watershed from withdrawing water unless certain members of the Compact agree otherwise. UPDATE from the Great Lakes Cities Initiative -- they want to challenge the Waukesha decision, but on what grounds?

These members include the eight American states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvainia, Illinois, Indiana, and New York) and two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec). Left out of this group are the sovereign Native reserves/reservations in the bioregion and their respective traditional nations -- the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee.

The Compact continues the Great Lakes governance tradition of excluding these ‘Nation-to-Nation’ relations. All references to the Great Lakes as ‘bi-national’ perpetuate this colonial exclusion.

What other uncomfortable truths does this Waukesha decision divert our attention from? Here are three more.

Waukesha is actually returning its water to the Great Lakes (unlike the city of Chicago) and treating it beforehand (unlike many big cities).

The recent decision allows Waukesha to take and return 8.2 million gallons (31 million litres) everyday for its community. For comparison, the greater Chicago area is home to 9.5 million people and under the same Great Lakes Compact, Chicago can take water from lake Michigan and not return it to the Great Lakes. Instead it sends its water into the Mississippi watershed. If the average person greater Chicago uses as much water as the average person in Waukesha, then this Chicago diversion equals about 10.8 billion gallons of water – more than a 1,000 times more than Waukesha.

Waukesha is not only returning their water, but returning it treated. In July of 2013, the city of Toronto ‘diverted’ more than 1 billion litres (264,172,510 gallons) of raw sewage into lake Ontario in just one day after heavy rains. Because many Great Lakes cities have insufficient plumbing, raw sewage is regularly dumped into the lakes. In November of 2015, the city of Montreal dumped 8 billion litres of sewage into the Saint Lawrence river. This happens in many Great Lakes cities every week with little reporting but with a growing movement for more transparency. The Waukesha decision also mandates filtering out pharmaceuticals, unlike most Canadian and American cities.

This diversion decision is for people’s need for water. How much water is being diverted for bottled water instead?

While the Compact has faulty decision-making (Ontario and Quebec also didn’t get a vote in USA diversions) and has now set a troublesome precedent, activists around the world want water access to be defended as a human right.

Most commentary and reporting on Waukesha focuses on the precedent of this water withdrawal. However, the Great Lakes continue to be a profitable source of commercial water with no watershed data on totals leaving the watershed.

There will be strict monitoring of water quantity and quality in Waukesha’s win, but there is no coordinated monitoring for bottled water companies. Putting aside the issues of plastic pollution and the commercialization of water, shouldn’t water diversions for human rights be less problematic than diversions for corporate profits?

Based on research for a separate map of bottled water in the Great Lakes, we calculated that almost 2 billion gallons (the same as the needs of 20,000 homes) of water was permitted for commercial bottling in the basin (and this was just for Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario). In just one county in Ontario (Wellington) Nestle is trying to add 1.6 million litres of water to its bottom line on top of the 4.8 million litres it already takes – every single day. They pay only $3.71 per million litres to the province for this permit.

How much of this water is being diverted from the Great Lakes? Unlike the Waukesha decision, this commercial diversion is not being monitored. Our map totals don’t even include the bottled water that is sourced from municipal drinking water sources – like Pepsi bottling in Mississauga and Coke in Brampton (both in southern Ontario). How many more cities sell water for commercial bottling and how many litres or gallons does this add up to?

The last reason why the Waukesha decision should not divert our attention away from more harmful practices of Great Lakes governance is the impact of water diverted through Great Lakes trade.

The combined GDP (dollars exchanged) in the Great Lakes basin is 5.8 trillion dollars (USD). Do governments kept track of how this 5.8 trillion dollar trade impacts water quality and quantity? No.

Water footprint research and tools exist to track how much water is consumed when making the products we buy. The term virtual water is also used describe the amount of water we use to produce each item of food, clothing, electronics, etc. For example it takes 2,500 litres of water (660 gallons) to make a chunk of cheese (500g).

Relating to the Waukesha diversion decision, how much of this Great Lakes trade exports more freshwater than it imports? The Water Footprint Network gives us some more insight:

A nation’s water footprint can be viewed from two perspectives: production and consumption.
The water footprint of production is the amount of local water resources that are used to produce goods and services within the country. This includes the water footprint of agriculture, industry and domestic water use and tells us the total volume of water and assimilation capacity consumed within the borders of the country.
We can also view the water footprint from the perspective of consumption. In this case, the water footprint is calculated for all the goods and services that are consumed by the people living in a country. This water footprint may be partly inside the country and partly outside of it, depending on whether the products are locally produced or imported.

All economies and communities are tied to the availability and purity of water. Yet through the great discounting of water in our lives, the Great Lakes economy is not measuring its water footprint. Every cent of this 5.8 trillion dollar economy is counted and valued for our collective progress, yet our water impacts are not. Massive water diversions are happening throughout the Great Lakes, not just the one agreed upon for Waukesha.

It’s possible to use the Waukesha decision to sharpen our questions on water goverance. Let’s not let one recent decision divert our attention from the many more important decisions that are still unresolved and often missing from the conversation.