Protect our Great Lakes: River Alliance Testimony from August 18, 2015

Aug 18, 2015 | Citizen Advocacy, DNR, Water Policy

Testimony on Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Waukesha Water Diversion Application

Oral Testimony: Helen Sarakinos, River Alliance of Wisconsin


My name is Helen Sarakinos, I am with the River Alliance of Wisconsin which is a member of the Compact Implementation Coalition. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this draft EIS. We thank the Department for its efforts over the many years and iterations of Waukesha’s application.


While River Alliance echoes the concerns laid out by our CIC colleagues, I will limit my comments today to the return flow aspects of the application.

The Great Lakes Compact (and WI implementing legislation) required the Department when deciding to grant an exception to the ban on diversions, to……..

  • Return all of the water it withdraws to the Lake Michigan watershed, less an allowance for consumptive use;
  • Minimize the amount of water from the Mississippi River Basin that is introduced into the Great Lakes Basin;
  • Treat all surface water or groundwater from the Mississippi River Basin to meet applicable water quality discharge standards and to prevent the introduction of invasive species; and
  • Protect and sustain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the receiving water, considering the state of the receiving water before the proposal is implemented and considering both low and high flow conditions and potential adverse impacts due to changes in temperature and nutrient loadings.



The application proposes to return almost 100% of the water it diverts to the Great Lakes which will be possible in ideal climatic conditions. However, Waukesha will only be held accountable to return 86% of what they pump as DNR has calculated a consumptive loss of 14%.

We’ve heard that return flow will benefit the Root River at the point of return because of low base flows. This might be a legitimate argument if we were looking only at volumes of water and nothing else.

The reality is that wastewater treatment will not remove all pollutants:

  1. Both DNR and EPA found that the new discharge will potentially result in a “significant lowering of water quality” for some of the discharged pollutants from Waukesha’s return flow: particularly heat, phosphorus and chlorides. DNR’s own analysis shows that Waukesha’s wastewater discharge will not meet the temperature standards for the Root River for the hottest parts of the year, and will have a difficult time meeting phosphorus and chloride standards without significant effort and upgrades to its facilities. Waukesha will need to do both significant planning and improvements to its facilities to ensure its discharge does not result in backsliding of water quality or harm significant improvements that have already been made in the Root River Watershed.
  2. The federal compact language is unequivocal about the need for this: Any approvable diversion must “Protect and sustain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the receiving water, … considering both low and high flow conditions and potential adverse impacts due to changes in temperature and nutrient loadings.”
  3. Many of the water quality concerns will need to be addressed in order for Waukesha to get its state discharge permits. We are glad to hear that the WPDES permit will need to be granted prior to final diversion approval. We remain very concerned however, that the other states will not have a chance to evaluate whether Waukesha has adequately met its obligation under the compact to protect receiving water since they will need to approve the diversion years before the WPDES permit will be granted.
  4. Waukesha’s wastewater discharge will make up a third of the Root River flow at point of discharge through low flow months (Jul-Oct). During drought conditions, the discharge may comprise up to 80-90% of the total flow. This could pose risk for recreational use, as State law currently requires bacteria testing but not testing of viruses or pathogens that are likely to make people sick.
  5. Because this wastewater discharge will be a new discharge into a river that is already impaired by low water quality, these issues must be resolved before the discharge permit is given to Waukesha and before any discharge should commence.
  6. The Fox River will see about 2-3 MGD of flow, a 15% reduction. This is likely to have significant impacts on fisheries and other aquatic life during low flow periods, as modelled and explained by DNR in the EIS and technical review.


The Great Lakes hold almost 20% of the word’s surface freshwater. While we talk about this diversion being a fraction of a percent, let’s put a little perspective on this – only one percent of the water in the Great Lakes is renewed by rainfall and snowmelt every year. If we take out more than 1%, we threaten the long-term viability of this resource. And while Waukesha is asking for a small percentage of water, this application will set a precedent for future diversions that have the potential to cumulatively impact our Great Lakes. Some may think we are holding Waukesha to an extremely high bar, but shouldn’t we hold protection of this precious resource to the highest standards?


It is imperative, given the precedent-setting nature of this first of its kind water diversion out of the Great Lakes Basin, that this application meet all of the eligibility criteria under the Compact. The City of Waukesha’s application DOES NOT meet these important criteria and, therefore we are requesting that our State DNR deny this current diversion request. We thank you for this opportunity to comment on this critical issue.