Waukesha’s Request for Great Lakes Water Should Be Nixed

New analysis shows Waukesha can generate enough water, and more cheaply, using its own resources.

By - Jul 20th, 2015 11:00 am
Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

The City of Waukesha is seeking to become the first community outside of the Great Lakes Basin to obtain a water diversion under the Great Lakes Compact. The City of Waukesha has discredited viable, local water supply alternatives to Great Lakes water for the sole purpose of fueling unlimited industrial expansion and residential development at a high cost to its ratepayers. As such, Waukesha has not shown that they meet the high bar set by the Great Lakes Compact to even ask for Great Lakes water. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should not approve Waukesha’s request for Great Lakes water.

It has taken five years for the DNR to complete their review and tacit approval of Waukesha’s water diversion application, mainly due to Waukesha’s lack of diligence in submitting complete information for the DNR’s environmental analysis. Even now, Waukesha has created a false need for water by including a proposed expanded water supply service area in its application (an increase of 40 percent) and has inflated future water demand estimates by cherry picking data to make reasonable alternatives seem unreasonable—all for the sake of industrial and residential expansion outside the city limits.

Communities in the “expanded” service area have not demonstrated a need for water and have not enacted any conservation measures (per Compact requirements). Waukesha contends that including the expanded water supply service area is necessary to align with proposed sanitary sewer service area plans developed by SEWRPC. However, this interpretation conflicts with the basic language of the Compact, a federal law.

As a coalition of environmental and health organizations, one of our top priorities is to ensure people have access to clean drinking water. Our response to Waukesha’s lack of effort in thoroughly and responsibly evaluating all of its water supply alternatives, as the Great Lakes Compact says it must, has been to incur our own costs to provide Waukesha and the DNR with an independent analysis, fully supported with well-vetted research and sound science.

The data is in and the conclusions are clear: Waukesha can sustainably meet its current and future water needs for its existing water supply service area by treating existing deep groundwater wells for radium and other contaminants, while continuing to use its existing shallow wells.

While these suggestions of treating Waukesha’s water and limiting water supply to Waukesha’s current service area are nothing new, data supporting a non-diversion solution with radium treatment as Waukesha’s best option is new. For example, recent data shows that water demand has decreased significantly, and that decline in water pumping by Waukesha and surrounding communities has led to a significant rebound in the deep aquifer. Our Non-Diversion Solution provides information that the DNR did not see in Waukesha’s application and that Waukesha has chosen not to share.

Add in that the Waukesha Water Utility’s own budget for 2015 projects a $334 million cost for its proposed Great Lakes diversion that will increase residential utility bills from around $260 per year to almost $900 per year by 2024. This Non-Diversion Solution is the most cost effective solution to Waukesha’s water supply issues.

Waukesha also says its return flow (returning an equal amount of water bac to Lake Michigan) will be of a higher quality than the current water quality in the Root River, an already impaired waterway for phosphorus, and that their discharge would improve water quality due to dilution. However, adding diluted pollution still adds pollution loading to the waterway, and will still contribute to the overall impairment of the Root River and downstream Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes are one of our region’s most important natural resources. The Great Lakes Compact was created to make sure water stays in the Great Lakes so it can continue to provide for future generations. Despite their vast size, only one percent of Great Lakes water is renewable every year–with most of that water being a one time gift from the Glaciers. Waukesha’s diversion application is the first test of the Compact since it was ratified in 2008, so it’s vital the Wisconsin DNR get this right by looking at the proposal with a critical eye, especially in light of this new information.

Waukesha Water Utility has stated many times it would like the decision concerning their proposed Great Lakes diversion to be based on sound science. Our coalition has just provided the Utility and the DNR with additional information to help them do just that.

It’s time to hold Waukesha accountable for providing safe and clean water in a way that is respectful of its own residents, the Great Lakes Compact, and the Great Lakes.

The DNR released its draft environmental impact study and preliminary decision on Waukesha’s diversion application on June 25, 2015. Comments on both are being accepted until August 28, 2015 at DNRWaukeshaDiversionApp@wisconsin.gov. We urge concerned citizens to attend hearings, submit comments and stay apprised of any further developments by visiting www.protectourgreatlakes.org. If Wisconsin approves Waukesha’s application, it will be forwarded to Ontario and Quebec as well as the seven other Great Lakes states for further review.

Cheryl Nenn, of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, wrote this on behalf of the Compact Implementation Coalition, a coalition of environmental and health groups.

Categories: Op-Ed

28 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Waukesha’s Request for Great Lakes Water Should Be Nixed”

  1. AG says:

    So the city of Waukesha is simple supposed to ignore state law?

    And if one of this coalition’s main goals is to “ensure people have access to clean drinking water” then why are they not concerned about the people in that expanded service area that currently have clean water issues?

    Finally, if they’re so concerned about the quality of water going to the root river parkway… why are they not concerned about that same discharge going to the fox river?

  2. Rich says:

    Communities in the “expanded” service area have not demonstrated a need for water and have not enacted any conservation measures (per Compact requirements).

    AG, can you offer specifics on those who are? I’d really like to know. The ‘expanded service area’ thing strikes me as one of those abstract long-range planning things — like the DOT does with projected traffic counts — and not really a manifestation of a problem. Plus, I don’t think anything SEWRPC says is legally binding, but I could be wrong there.

  3. AG says:

    There was a community (I think it might have been Genesee Depot?) that had a bacterial problem or something… and it fell within Waukesha’s service area… so there’s things like that which have to be considered.

    SEWRPC was mandated by law the create the full service area, so it is binding.

  4. AG says:

    OK, so I the authority for SEWRPC here: the boundaries being decided by SEWRPC is Chapter NR 121 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code

  5. JD says:

    Seriously? Nenn accuses Waukesha of cherry-picking data? Meanwhile, her report uses wet, Great Recession years to determine demand and impacts? And she talks about a 40% increase in service area, but fails to mention only 15% is developable. And she cites a 1% natural recharge of Great Lakes water, when Waukesha would withdraw AND RETURN on 1/100,000,000th of Great Lakes water. And ignoring that the Root River is dried up during critical fish passage months and needs additional water. But the main distortion is focusing on what Waukesha said, but ignoring the fact that the DNR agreed that the Lake is the only reasonable option and that the DNR disagreed with every single assertion by her group after five years of analysis.

  6. SC says:

    Journal Sentinel from 3 years ago: The state Department of Natural Resources will not accept a water deal that does not serve the entire future service area, said Eric Ebersberger, the department’s water use section chief. . . From the DNR’s perspective, the concession Milwaukee is seeking is not Waukesha’s to give, Ebersberger said. Link at http://bitly.com/Mzb1nd

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @SC http://media.jsonline.com/documents/wsaletter.pdf
    “However, because the uncertainty about whether the town will be included in the service area has delayed the City’s own application for Great Lakes water, we must know the Town’s decision by April 30, 2013. If the Town Board chooses not to change the previous decision, the City will move its application forward with only limited portions of the town in the water and sewer services areas, as approved by the Town.”

    Sure sounds like the City of Waukesha was planning on not including the Town of Waukesha in its app (if it didn’t get the Town to sign onboard… which took a lot of convincing).

  8. SC says:

    That’s right. Because the decision was the Town’s, not the City’s. The map is set by SEWRPC, with the DNR’s approval, but the Town must also approve inclusion. Which is consistent with what the Journal Sentinel said the DNR said. The DNR also said the service area must be consistent with the sewer service area under the state law, which was enacted in the state Compact bill. Nenn and her allies strongly supported that bill and never objected to the service area provision. Bottom line — neither service area is up to the City, no matter how often she wants to claim that it is.

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @SC The City of Waukesha pushed the Town to join in, despite the fact it appears to be in violation of the Compact because the Town (just one of the examples) doesn’t need it and hasn’t implemented conservation measures. And if I remember correctly the Town originally voted against joining the application, so clearly the additional municipalities could have been left out.

  10. jake says:

    Waukesha has done nothing with conservation efforts. It’s just one large vacuum of money from the city and a destroyer of resources. It is a parasite on the region.

  11. sc says:

    Waukesha had the state’s first daytime sprinkling ban, the first rates that go higher instead of lower with more use, the first toiler rebate program, etc. It has a new program of conservation incentives for industrial users.

    The argument that the supply plan law violates the Compact is very odd. It was written by Gov. Doyle’s DNR and added to the state version of the Compact. Doyle was co-chair of the Great Lakes Governors and negotiated the Compact itself. And Nenn and others never objected until four years after they said to pass the bill without changes. But it is Waukesha’s fault for following the law, apparently.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @SC The city has had conservation measures, not the four additional municipalities (I believe this is the argument in regards to conservation). Additionally, the additional four munis haven’t shown a need for the water (the Town voted against joining at least once). The application is from the City of Waukesha, not the DNR. And Nenn (and others) have questioned this application for years.

  13. AG says:

    Dave, the application is from the city but it must be approved by the DNR and even if Nenn et al questions the application, the question resides on the legal obligation to follow the SEWRPC service area guidelines for planning purposes. That is the part SC is saying they did not argue with when it was dictated.

    Basically, you can’t tell the city of Waukesha that they have to be able to service area x, only to then turn around and say they shouldn’t be covered because certain areas of x arn’t conserving enough or showing a need right now. It is out of their control and thus it makes sense to me why they’d push the town and others to join right off the bat so there is certainty regarding future need.

    Regardless, this all seems like opposition for oppositions sake because some people loath the burbs and are so afraid of development (ANY development) outside of dense urban borders. This certainly has nothing to do with rate payers in Waukesha or clean water…

  14. JS says:

    Has anybody tried to find out how much Walker administration politics is involved in all this analysis? The DNR is run by one of his hand-picked cronies and Waukesha is one of his political strongholds. This exemption will be the camel’s nose under the tent, and there will be no stopping the next request, whether legitimate or not, because the precedent will have been set. The compact was formed precisely to protect the Great Lakes from this kind of abuse.

  15. Tim says:

    AG, if the State of WI passed a law that required Lake Michigan water to be diverted to Madison… do you think the other Great Lakes governors would care? That law was a last minute change to further enlarge the service area & Dave Reid has proven that the towns had a say on whether you or no they would comply.

    Your argument is so legalistic, it shows you don’t care about the facts as you just use them ad hoc to support your position.

  16. Dave Reid says:

    I’d just add that regardless of the DNR, it is the Compact that rules this process. And the addition of those four municipalities appears to violate the Compact.

  17. AG says:

    Tim, I have no horse in this race and I do not care what Waukesha’s solution is… thus there is nothing to bias my opinion and I have no position. I’m merely pointing out that this seems to be opposition for opposition sake. Once again we have the city and suburbs fighting instead of working together.

    The added service area was not a last minute change. I’m not aware of why/if the city pushed the town to join the service area, but it does make sense that they’d want a firm in/out decision for this application.

    Dave, the compact does rule all, but part of the compact requirements is that a regional body of the state must review and approve the application first (hence: DNR). This is all part of the process. Also, the whole reason these other municipalities were added is because all parts of the state need to be covered by a water service area by 2025 because water issues are increasingly showing up. Hence the situation with the town of Genesee which is struggling to maintain potable water in many wells. When you say the area does/does not have an alternative water supply you have to look at the whole, not small pockets.

    You’re thinking of the water service areas as municipal borders but they are not (in fact, by law can not be limited by them).

    Also, the outlying areas DO have conservation plans included in their smart growth plans. So that requirement is met.

    The DNR’s assessment was completed with the compact standards in mind (that is the purpose). They analyzed if the criteria was met for the compact… not for just their own interests.

  18. David Ciepluch says:

    Great care and deliberation is needed in this decision as it goes through a lengthy process. Waukesha is the 1st request being made after the diversion decision of Chicago over 100 years ago to flush their urban waste using Lake Michigan water all the way through the Mississippi River. It may seem like such a small amount of water, but what happens when more thirsty communities are added to the list including regions at even greater distance?

    As we now know, perhaps the greatest environmental disaster of the 20th Century occurred by diversion of water from the Aral Sea that has almost disappeared other than a northern section that has been saved by drastic conservation measures. There are many tipping points and as climate changes, and inputs and outputs to the Great Lakes are altered, and other portions of the nation suffer great droughts, and floods, there will be great pressures to allow more and greater diversions, and politicians may cave to these requests. The Great Lakes area may lose out in a political battle due to demographics alone. Could the Great Lakes become an Aral Sea disaster? Lake Erie is a current example of disaster with toxic algae from regional inputs of agricultural fertilizers from rivers from Indiana and Ohio emptying into the lake. Municipal water systems have become poisoned and will likely happen again on a seasonal basis until these inputs are stopped.

    I personally would be inclined to deny the Waukesha request since they appear to have less costly measures available. Waukesha County is a water rich region that has also used up 500 feet of the deep sandstone aquifer water in just 60 years. Waukesha has many lakes and shallower aquifers to draw from and this is where their water use should come from with application of all available practical conservation measures.

  19. AG says:

    David Ciepluch, thanks for the interesting topic of the Aral Sea! Although I knew it was possible, hence why we’re trying to protect the great lakes, I was not aware anything of that scale had ever actually happened.

    Regarding Waukesha, one of the drawbacks to all other plans that use surface water and shallow wells, was the effect on the wetlands. Every other option seems to post a great risk. After much though, I was also leaning to Waukesha using those sources… but if there is such a risk to our precious wetlands, wouldn’t we be better off with the lake Michigan water since the effects are far smaller?

    I’m saying this from the perspective that they’d be returning much of that water back to the Lake Michigan basin. Besides cost, the water diversion was the main reason I was opposed to the diversion… but it is minimal compared to the effects on the wetlands.

  20. David Ciepluch says:

    Many of Lake Michigan estuaries and large wetlands and forested watershed have been destroyed and drastically altered on the Wisconsin side of the lake. More than 1/2 of all wetlands in Wisconsin are gone. The Menomonee River and Valley were huge wetlands that were filled 10-20 ft. with urban waste. The Mitchell Airport held at least a square mile of wetland that fed the Kinnickinnic River watershed. The Deer Creek River and wetland system ran along Delaware Avenue in Bay View and was shoved through underground plumbing to accommodate urban development of the 1920-30s.

    Waukesha continues to work on filling and obliterating many of their wetlands and the current government system in place has a preference for ongoing destruction with development over small wetlands. Uplands have value as well with forest and prairie grass lands but get little mention for cleaning and driving water into ground to replenish groundwater systems.

    At one time, urban infrastructure installation of underground plumbing would plug pipe runs near wetland areas. I am not sure if this practice is still followed. MMSD as a storm water authority has been working to improve and save lands in their service territory for storm water and water quality controls.

    Waukesha is a land of water plenty, but does little to protect these resources as an overall strategy and benefiting long term for Southeast WI. I believe the thought is Lake Michigan is such a huge body of good water, why not just stick the straw in there. This is a dangerous precedent and attorneys and legal groups always like to use that as a key argument for more cases. The western undeveloped and native prairie edges of Waukesha County actually feed into the groundwater of Milwaukee County. Waukesha needs to work on protecting their natural resources as a solution, and this benefits more than just Waukesha citizens.

  21. AG says:

    So, based on what you believe regarding protecting wetlands… they really should get their water from Lake Michigan, as long as it is returned likewise. This will protect the wetlands in and near the city of Waukesha better than if they use surface water and/or and shallow wells. This is the same conclusion I believe I’ve come to.

  22. David Ciepluch says:

    Waukesha County should do more to protect their wetland and upland areas in recharge areas. In turn this will help replenish and sustain the upper aquifers that they could draw more water. I do not know enough about the geology of the deep sandstone aquifer that the city now draws water and the possibilities of some replenishment of that aquifer.

    My understanding of the upper aquifer in the inner part of the city, is that it is contaminated from long term releases of leaking tanks, oils and degreasers.

    Municipalities in the Lake Michigan watershed have been fortunate that when they have located contaminated sites, they can cover it up and allows for centuries of natural degradation to take place, if it ever does. In turn they can draw on Lake Michigan water.

    I have not interested in having sewage laden water from Waukesha Treatment plants, especially during overflows, flow into the Menomonee River and into Lake Michigan.

  23. AG says:

    David Ciepluch, the diversion plan looks specifically at the wetlands and the effects of the various alternative. All of them would have a negative effect except the Lake Michigan option. In fact, the lake Michigan option would improve the water quality in the Mississippi basin because the stricter water quality standards of the great lake effluents would mean Waukesha would improve the treated sewage water quality that goes both to Lake Michigan and to the Fox River.

    Also, regarding the wetlands in the city of Waukesha and surrounding areas, they have a master plan for development that involves preserving and improving wetlands.

    Regarding the upper aquifer being so contaminated… this is the same aquifer that many of the alternative would pull from. That does not seem logical to pull drinking water from that.

    As far as the discharge to Lake Michigan, it would run through the root river, not Monomonee. The discharge would also be of higher quality than the water in the river, and would help clean it up for the short run from where it joins the river and flows out through Racine. We don’t have to worry about sewage overflows because it wouldn’t go through MMSD and even in heavy rain events, the discharge would be redirected into the fox river.

    To top things off, if the city of Waukesha uses Lake Michigan water, there would no longer be the need for water softeners and that would greatly reduce the salt and unnatural minerals being added to our waterways. This is not only more environmentally friendly, but also saves people enough money that makes the cost difference in projects minimal.

    When this article first popped up, I was neutral… but forced to looking at the diversion application and the environmental impact study, I believe the Lake Michigan diversion is the best option. You can read both documents here:


  24. Tim says:

    ” We don’t have to worry about sewage overflows because it wouldn’t go through MMSD”

    Hahahahahaha, yeah… MMSD is the only sewerage district to have overflows… where do you get your “facts” that you just *know* to be true?

  25. AG says:

    Tim, “we” was referring to those of us in Milwaukee.

    As far as other overflows… I have no idea what Waukesha’s situation is… right now, if/when they have them it goes to the Fox River. Same would happen under any diversion plan. Thus, Milwaukee has no worry and it will never go towards Lake Michigan. (although really does it matter where it goes? It does damage in any direction)

  26. Ernest Martinson says:

    It does not sound as though the Great Lakes Compact has set a very high bar to water diversion if the City of Waukesha is requesting Great Lakes water, even though Waukesha can obtain it economically by treating its own water. The solution is simple. Set a high volumetric tax on all water taken from the Great Lakes, whether within or without the basin. The market will then sort things out with more efficacy than politicians and bureaucrats would even attempt to do. Anytime water withdrawal appears excessive, set the tax rate higher.

  27. AG says:

    Oh, also… the MMSD part was not a random dig at MMSD. The reason I said that was because piping the waste water to one of the MMSD treatment plants was a listed option for the return flow. That would have added risk of needing overflows during storm events (if it wasn’t diverted to the Fox River).

  28. Bill McClenahan says:

    Nenn’s coalition rejected the DNR’s five-year analysis the day it was released, before they could have even read it. If they had read it, they would have seen that the DNR did, in fact, examine what the environmental impacts would be if Waukesha’s demand was less than what the agency determined is reasonable. In other words, it modeled what her coalition proposed.

    The DNR’s modeling found damage to 700 to 2,300 acres of wetlands, plus impacts to inland lakes, streams and aquifers. Although Nenn and her coalition is apparently is fine with this environmental damage, the DNR is not. The agency’s draft report says the only reasonable water supply alternative is Lake Michigan, not groundwater use.

    The DNR’s analysis of thousands of pages of application materials, along with its own modeling and cost estimates, is certainly more credible than a flimsy 28-page report by a company hired to support her group’s opposition to Waukesha. The report is certainly not independent and the data and assumptions behind it have not been released.

    Use of Great Lakes water is responsible and sustainable. Waukesha would withdraw and return one one-millionth of 1% of Great Lakes water. Why is damage to inland resources preferable to recycling Lake Michigan water? The answer likely has more to do with politics than science, which is the opposite of what the Compact intended.

    Waukesha is likely a precedent for only a handful of communities that could show a similar need, due to the local shale layer that restricts the recharge from rain and snowmelt and its location in a densely populated southeastern Wisconsin/northeastern Illinois area that puts high demands on the aquifer. Her argument that the aquifer is fine is like saying that Lake Michigan water volumes are nothing to worry about because of the recent increase in lake levels. Focusing on short-term phenomena is bad planning.

    The water supply service area is not determined by Waukesha. It is required by state law to be consistent with sewer service areas that have existed for more than 30 years. The purpose is to help all communities manage sewer and water services with a focus on watersheds instead of political boundaries. And none of the members of Nenn’s group objected to the supply area provisions when they were included in Wisconsin’s Compact implementation bill.

    If the water supply and sewer areas were not consistent, it would violate the Compact’s provisions about maximizing the return of basin water and minimizing the return of out-of-basin water. The water supply service area law was written by the Administration of Governor Doyle, which also negotiated the Great Lakes Compact. And presumably knew what it was doing when it added to Wisconsin’s Compact implementation law. The Compact itself, according to repeated statements by the DNR, contains language – at Wisconsin’s request – to accommodate service areas.

    If the areas were not consistent, it would violate the Compact’s provisions about maximizing the return of basin water and minimizing the return of out-of-basin water. Alternatively, the sewer area would need to be shrunk, forcing people to rely on septic systems, leading to groundwater pollution – another issue Nenn ignores.

    Nenn’s claims about growth are also wrong. Only 15% of the service area is available for development. The area outside of the city is largely residential and largely developed (but on wells). Only 0.2% of that area is undeveloped commercial land and only 0.5% is undeveloped industrial land.

    Finally, adding highly treated return flow water to the Root will lower concentrations of phosphorus and improve the flow for fish passage. It is providing a benefit, instead of wasting the return flow resource by restricting it to a pipe.

    The DNR’s analysis of thousands of pages of application materials, along with its own modeling and cost estimates, is certainly more credible than a flimsy 28-page report by a company hired to support her group’s opposition to Waukesha. Their report is certainly not independent and the data and assumptions behind it have not been released.

    For more information, see http://www.waukesha-water.com.

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