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Effort To Divert Water From Lake Michigan Sets Off Fierce Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a reality of the American Midwest. What happens in the Great Lakes stays in the Great Lakes.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At least that is the Midwestern water policy. Eight states border the Great Lakes. All of them have ensured the Great Lakes' water is only used within the Great Lakes Basin, the region that drains back into them.

INSKEEP: Many other places would really like to consume that water. Sometimes people in southwestern deserts talk about getting Great Lakes water. Now, that is not going to happen soon.

GREENE: But a suburb of Milwaukee just outside the basin has now been given a preliminary go-ahead to tap into Lake Michigan. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio Reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Waukesha is just outside the Great Lakes Basin. But under an agreement OK-ed by the eight Great Lakes states and Congress seven years ago, the city of 71,000 is allowed to apply for Great Lakes water. It's the first community to make such a request. And a Wisconsin agency controlled by Governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has given its preliminary OK. It would cost Waukesha residents about $200 million to build pipelines, roughly 20 miles from and back to Lake Michigan. But at state-run hearings this week, Waukesha resident Tom Constable said he'd be OK with higher water rates.

TOM CONSTABLE: I'm just Joe Blow Citizen, but it makes sense. Take water from Lake Michigan. Use it. Clean it. And return it to Lake Michigan.

QUIRMBACH: Waukesha says lake water is the only reasonable alternative to continued use of the city's groundwater, much of which is contaminated with naturally occurring radium. But Waukesha's application includes four smaller neighboring communities. And Milwaukee officials, such as Alderman Bob Bauman, contend more water for the suburbs means more problematic growth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB BAUMAN: The impact is sprawl. And the impact sprawl has on the environment as a whole, on economic justice in major cities like Milwaukee, like Cleveland, like Buffalo, who are also on the Great Lakes, who may also be affected by this very significant precedent-setting decision...

QUIRMBACH: Many environmental groups in the Great Lakes region agree and have traveled to Wisconsin to testify against Waukesha's diversion application. Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council worries the proposal would open the door to overuse of the lakes.

KRISTY MEYER: People would start looking at Great Lakes water as a potential source rather than saying, are there different alternatives to getting potable water? So I do think it has the potential to be death by a thousand straws to the Great Lakes.

QUIRMBACH: Waukesha officials argue otherwise and say if successful, their case for Great Lakes water would set a high standard for any future applications. The final decision isn't just Wisconsin's. Any of the other Great Lakes states could eventually block Waukesha's request or demand changes. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.