Home / News / News Features / Does Waukesha Really Need Lake Michigan Water?

Does Waukesha Really Need Lake Michigan Water?

And other big questions about the Great Lakes Water Compact

Jun. 2, 2010
Google plus Linkedin Pinterest

The city of Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water is the first of its kind under the Great Lakes Water Compact, and with it comes scrutiny. Here are some of the biggest questions about Waukesha’s request, and how it will be handled in Wisconsin and by the Compact’s partners.

Hasn’t Waukesha gotten the OK to purchase Lake Michigan water? The mayor already has been discussing potential deals with officials from Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine.

Waukesha hasn’t gotten the OK yet, although its Common Council recently voted to move ahead with its request for Great Lakes water (over the reservations of new Mayor Jeff Scrima). After years of study, Waukesha has sent materials to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is now conducting a preliminary review.

Q: Does Waukesha really need Lake Michigan water?

A: The majority of the Waukesha Common Council thinks so, although Mayor Scrima has said that the city hasn’t looked at all of its options other than Lake Michigan water. Environmental groups are also questioning the request, saying that Waukesha could do more to conserve water as well as treat and reuse its wastewater. “They have a sustainable water supply for the next few decades if they conserve it,” said Cheryl Nenn, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

But Dan Duchniak, the general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, says that there are only three options: groundwater, water from the deep aquifer and Lake Michigan water. The groundwater and deep aquifer water sources are limited and have contamination, making Lake Michigan water the preferred source for the long term.

“I do believe that if we do go with another alternative, whether it be groundwater or one of the groundwater alternatives, at some point down the road the residents of Waukesha will be facing the same issue,” Duchniak said.

Q: Why is Waukesha asking for twice as much water as it currently uses? Won’t this fuel more suburban sprawl?

A: Currently, Waukesha uses about 9 million gallons of water daily (mgd), but it’s asking for a total of 18.5 mgd of Great Lakes water, which represents its maximum daily demand in about a hundred years. “That would happen maybe five or six times a year if at all,” Duchniak said. The average day’s consumption would be about 10.9 mgd decades from now.

Q: If Waukesha’s request for its ultimate water use is approved under the Compact, would it immediately start drawing its maximum amount of requested water from Lake Michigan?

A: No. Although Waukesha is requesting 18 mgd for its ultimate water needs, it’s making a short-term request of about 9.5 mgd for its immediate needs. Waukesha and the DNR would revisit the issue every 20 years and adjust the water amount if necessary. In that way, Wisconsin—not the Great Lakes states—oversees the amount of Lake Michigan water to be sent to Waukesha.

“The governors don’t want you coming back all the time and requesting more and more water,” Duchniak said. “They just want to have one large request and have the state deal with those smaller requests.”

That said, if Waukesha gets the go-ahead for its short-term needs of 9.5 mgd, it would stop pumping from its deep aquifer, which is being depleted rapidly, and start using Lake Michigan water. But it would also begin building infrastructure that could handle its maximum daily demand of 18.5 mgd from the lake.

Q: What will happen to the water that’s withdrawn from Lake Michigan?

A: Under the Compact guidelines, Waukesha will have to return it to Lake Michigan as clean as it was when it was withdrawn. The city plans to treat the water, then send it to Underwood Creek, which flows into the Great Lakes basin.

But Riverkeeper Nenn questions this plan, saying the creek—like most urban waterways—is already under stress and could be further degraded by plans to reconstruct and possibly expand the Zoo Interchange. That would increase runoff to Underwood Creek and Honey Creek.

Q: Will the DNR rubber stamp Waukesha’s request and allow the city to start purchasing Lake Michigan water?

A: The DNR doesn’t have the ultimate say in whether Waukesha will receive the water. Right now, it’s conducting a preliminary review of Waukesha’s data. According to Shaili Pfeiffer of the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, Waukesha must make its case under Wisconsin law and under the Great Lakes Water Compact guidelines. To do so, Pfeiffer said, Waukesha must show that there is no reasonable alternative to Lake Michigan water—that local water sources and conservation efforts won’t meet its needs—and that the water will be returned to Lake Michigan in good condition.

The DNR could find that Waukesha doesn’t need Lake Michigan water. It could ask Waukesha to do more studies. Or it could find that Waukesha has submitted enough information and has made its case. If or when that happens, the DNR will finalize the application and send it to the Compact partners.

Q: What role will the other Great Lakes Compact states play?

A: If the DNR approves Waukesha’s application, it will send the material to the Compact’s Regional Body, which is made up of representatives from the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces. It will analyze the application and make a recommendation within 90 days. It could recommend approval, rejection or provisional approval if certain conditions are met.

That recommendation will go to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council, which is made up of the eight states only, without the Canadian provinces. The council must consider the recommendation and take a vote, but no deadline is set for that vote. A single “no” vote would deny the request, although a state may abstain from voting if it wishes. That would indicate that the state doesn’t necessarily agree with the request, but it’s not going to stand in the way of the water diversion. Politically, it would lessen the chances that a rejected state would retaliate in the future and vote against another state’s application.

Q: Do Wisconsin residents have any say in this?

A: A little, but not a whole lot. Right now, the DNR is conducting a public comment period on the scope of the application’s Environmental Impact Statement. In plain English, that means that the public can send the DNR the topics it wants the department to consider during its review of Waukesha’s application. For more information, or to submit a topic, go to dnr.wi.gov/org/water/dwg/WaukeshaDiversionApp.htm.

The DNR will also post all of the materials related to the application on its website and conduct at least one public hearing if it goes ahead with Waukesha’s application.


Would white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan pose the same threat they do now if a mainstream Republican were president instead of Donald Trump?

Getting poll results. Please wait...