Waukesha Doesn’t Need Lake Michigan Water

City can responsibly treat its groundwater, at half the cost to its taxpayers.

By - Aug 18th, 2015 02:13 pm
Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

Great Lakes watershed. Image: Great Lakes Commission

Over the past five years, you may have heard about the city of Waukesha’s application to permanently divert water from Lake Michigan. The city’s application has dragged on for so long, it probably doesn’t seem newsworthy anymore.

I’m writing today to urge you — it is the time to pay attention.

Waukesha’s application has huge implications for the entire Great Lakes region because it is the first application to divert water under the Great Lakes Compact, the federal law ratified in 2008 designed to protect our Great Lakes from water withdrawals to areas outside of the Great Lakes Basin.

The decision on Waukesha’s application will set a precedent that either upholds these protections or allows many other out-of-basin diversions of Great Lakes water.

Unfortunately, the city of Waukesha’s application ignores other reasonable alternatives to their proposed Great Lakes diversion. In its application, Waukesha is proposing to double the size of its water service area and thereby contravening the standards of the Great Lakes Compact. By including this expanded service area, Waukesha greatly inflates the amount of water it needs and thereby tries to justify using Great Lakes water rather than local groundwater.

Unfortunately for Waukesha residents, the city’s Lake Michigan diversion plan also does so at extremely high cost to ratepayers. Waukesha Water Utility’s own 2015 budget projects a $334 million cost for its proposed Great Lakes diversion, which will increase residential utility bills from around $260 per year to almost $900 per year by 2024. All this for the sake of future, hypothetical expansion outside the city limits.

The data is in and the conclusions are clear: Waukesha can sustainably meet its current and future water needs for its water service supply area by treating existing deep groundwater wells for radium and other contaminants, without depleting its groundwater supply. And it can do this at one-half the cost to their ratepayers.

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 economic and recreational opportunities for our area for future generations. Waukesha’s diversion application is the first test of the Compact since it was ratified in 2008, so it’s vital that 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 the opportunity to do just that.

It’s time to hold Waukesha accountable for providing safe and clean water to its residents in a way that is respectful of its own residents, the Great Lakes Compact, and the Great Lakes region. Waukesha’s current application does not take the future needs of communities of Great Lakes cities like Green Bay into consideration. That is simply unacceptable.

The DNR released its draft environmental impact study and preliminary decision on Waukesha’s diversion application on June 25. Comments on both are being accepted until Aug. 28 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.

George Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Categories: Op-Ed

11 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Waukesha Doesn’t Need Lake Michigan Water”

  1. George says:

    The DNR has said that Waukesha’s water is not able to be sustained by continuing to use the deep and shallow aquifers. This article does not provide any viable alternative to the high radium/radon levels currently in Wauksha’s water. These containments are only going to get worse as the deep aquifer continues to drain, at a rate of 5 feet per year. I understand not wanting to allow every other Waukesha type city to tap into Lake Michigan, but I have yet to hear a viable alternative to this.

  2. tim haering says:

    GOod grief. If it was as simple and cheap as you claim, they would have done it last decade. What can you possible know that they don’t?! Stop the counter-clock spinning!

  3. WaukAnon says:

    Some thoughts after attending Monday’s hearing:

    The expanded service area is set by the SEWRPC and state law. I get the thought of wanting the city to just request for their current/immediate service area, but they can’t get DNR approval without it meeting their currently mandated service area requirements, which leaves the city in a standstill.

    It’s also curious why now that Milwaukee officials oppose the diversion (stated during Tuesday’s hearing), when not too long ago they were just as willing to sell Waukesha their water – what changed? During the first hearing, it was made clear the service area was not changed from the original scope by the DNR presenter.

    A thought to also keep in mind: if they continue to treat the water, that means removing Radium, a radioactive element from the water system. That Radium then has to be dealt with as a hazardous waste. Going to the lake circumvents that issue.

  4. AG says:

    WaukAnon, Milwaukee changed their position when Waukesha wouldn’t agree to their deal regarding poaching businesses. Milwaukee wanted a deal that said they would not give any sort of subsidy for any company moving from Milwaukee to Waukesha. Waukesha said they wouldn’t make such an agreement when Oak Creek was willing to sell the water w/o that stipulation.

    Regional cooperation, yay!

  5. John Ludwig says:

    Why is it always the case when a population flees to an area that cannot sustain it’s population they feel it is their right to take what is not environmentally theirs? Las Vegas and the ever expanding Southwest are draining the Colorado River yet they want more. This must stop. Waukesha has the largest, greenest lawns anywhere and they like that. I lived in Brookfield for 10 years and I know what I am saying. If Waukesha wants water that is geographically not theirs then they should give up grass, pools and other wasteful uses of fresh water. They moved out there to escape perceived problems in the Milwaukee Area and continually vote against Milwaukee needing financial support from them yet they want water that is not theirs to maintain their lifestyles at the cheapest costs. NO. Treat and conserve the water you have at your costs and live with the consequences and costs of your choices.

  6. Jim says:

    This isn’t about economics at all. It’s about the EPA changing the rules concerning Radon in the water and Waukesha’s water now being suspect. They need a safe alternative, if as the EPA and left claim, their water is unsafe. Clearly, the author is clueless and only thinking in political terms. Must be someone from Milwaukee, eventually trying to claim it’s all about race and skin color…

  7. WaukAnon says:

    @John Ludwig
    And this is the point I didn’t want to make: People confuse the City of Waukesha (the folks making the application) with other parts of Waukesha *County*.

  8. PMD says:

    The author is only thinking politics says Jim right after he bashes “the left” and somehow finds a way to bring up race. Pot, have you met kettle?

  9. Will says:

    Question from someone who knows nothing about this issue

    Is there a danger that allowing Waukesha to use lake michigan water will set a precedent for other locations to take from the lake as well? Are we looking at potentially selling Lake Michigan water to other places as far as say, California? Is Lake Michigan capable of even doing this? Again I know nothing about this issue.

  10. AG - poster formerly known as Andy says:

    No danger in something like that. It can only be diverted to a municipality that straddles the watershed divide. There’s a better way to say that, but basically a municipality has to have at least one portion within the basin. Also, any water diverted must be returned. So it’s not actually being diverted, at least not permanently… just recycled out and then back in.

  11. WaukAnon says:

    @AG is correct – the amount of water the city would draw must be returned. In the case here, it would be returned via the Root River.

    From the documents I read, it was noted that this would help the Root River during low flow times (say dry periods of summer), and would be a benefit to the fish and wildlife (specific mention of allowing fish enough flow for breeding). At the hearing I attended, those opposed noted three issues: return flow during high water times, return flow quality, and return flow temperature.

    The diversion docs make mention that if needed, there will be a point maintained to flow return water to the Fox River if there are problems on the Root River. From what I understood that to mean is if the water level was too high (say, 100 year flood), that the water flow could be diverted to keep impact on the Root River controlled.

    The quality I think would still be dependent on the same standards other communities who discharge would be under – phosphorus, etc, would all be monitored and measured, and the city would have to comply (just like Milwaukee). I saw this as a bit of a red herring/mute point.

    The temperature issue I’m not familiar with, so I have no idea if that is a problem, or if there is a plan in place for it.

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