On the Great Lakes, a trans-basin diversion discussion

For those of us in the western United States accustomed to the large scale movement of water from one river basin to another via tunnels, pumps, and the like, the current discussion about water supplies for Waukesha, Wisconsin, is a fascinating case study.

As I write this, I’m drinking from a glass of Albuquerque tap water, a portion of which came through 26 miles of tunnels burrowing beneath the Continental Divide, bringing water from the Colorado River Basin (specifically the San Juan sub-basin) to the Rio Grande Basin. We do this stuff all the time out here. If you live in Colorado’s urbanizing Front Range communities, you probably get a portion of your water from across the Continental Divide. Likewise L.A. and San Diego. The Colorado River Compact even defined the “Colorado River Basin” as “all of the drainage area of the Colorado River System and all other territory within the United States of America to which the waters of the Colorado River System shall be beneficially applied.” (emphasis added) My glass of water is clearly beneficial (it being warm this afternoon in Albuquerque) so I’m in the basin!

Around the Great Lakes, they take a dim view of such generous terms for the definition of a watershed, with a 2008 binational compact “that, among other provisions, effectively bans water users outside of the Great Lakes Basin from withdrawing Great Lakes water.” That’s Circle of Blue’s Codi Kozacek in a piece last week talking about the lively discussions about whether Waukesha can “export” Great Lakes water to meet its municipal needs:

Waukesha, home to 70,000 people, is located 27 kilometers (17 miles) west of Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin. In its application for an exception, the city proposes to take an annual average of 38.2 million liters (10.1 million gallons) of water per day from Lake Michigan, transport it through a pipeline to the city, and pipe the treated wastewater back to the Root River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

The city of Waukesha is outside the basin, but the county in which it sits straddles the low divide that separates the Great Lakes Basin from the Mississippi River Basin (it’s awful flat up there). The fact that the county is partially in the basin is what makes it potentially eligible. Given how easily we move water vast distances from one watershed to the next out here in the West, their discussion is a fascinating contrast.