Water for Waukesha?
Waukesha has been working towards obtaining a diversion of Lake Michigan water from the City of Milwaukee, purportedly because Waukesha has an issue with radium in their water supply due to depletion of their well water levels to an unsustainable level. The question of selling Great Lakes water to communities outside of the Great Lakes Basin is one that demands numerous questions be answered prior to any diversion being allowed. The request needs extra scrutiny because it would be the first request of its kind handled under the recently past Great Lakes Compact. Furthermore, any community considering participating in a transaction like this one, must look at the potential environmental impacts, and protect its own self interest, while also attempting to balance the region’s interests.
The level of radium in Waukesha’s water might be the short-term reason behind the need for a diversion, but this request is actually about Waukesha’s growth. Waukesha currently uses approximately seven million gallons of water a day, and current predictions suggest that once the municipality is built-out it will require eleven million gallons a day. Without access to clean safe water a new subdivision has no value, industry won’t locate there, and economic development will come to a halt.
Access to water is one of Milwaukee’s strengths, and has historically played a role in its economic growth. Breweries, tanneries, and more recently bottling companies have located in Milwaukee because of the availability of water. Selling water is essentially the selling off of one of Milwaukee’s core assets, it involves costs, and potentially lost economic opportunities. It’s not to say that this should preclude a diversion, just that these opportunity costs need to be recouped. Be it in improved transit service between the two cities, improved sharing of the affordable housing load, or simply in dollars, Milwaukee must consider the cost and determine the true value of water before completing this deal.