Does Waukesha Really Need Lake Michigan Water?

Jul. 9, 2015
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Years in the making, the city of Waukesha is poised to submit its request for the Lake Michigan water under the Great Lakes Compact. 

Waukesha, a city in a “straddling” county that encompasses both the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi River basin, would make history with its request because it’s the first of its kind under the compact.

The city is under pressure to find enough drinkable, radium-free water for its residents by 2018, the deadline that’s been set by the U.S. EPA to find a solution. Waukesha says its only alternative is to tap into Lake Michigan. 

The state DNR has given its preliminary OK to Waukesha’s application, but it will hold three public comment hearings before making its final determination. If the DNR approves it, the application will go to the governors of the Great Lakes states, which will vote on it. It needs a unanimous vote from all eight governors for it to be implemented. 

Waukesha claims that it must pipe in water from Lake Michigan, via Oak Creek, to its residents. It’ll send its treated wastewater back to the Lake Michigan basin via the Root River.

 But does Waukesha really need to stick a straw into Lake Michigan to acquire radium-free water? 

Not according to a new analysis sponsored by the Compact Implementation Coalition (CIC), which says that if Waukesha treated the water by using reverse osmosis in some of its wells, it could get rid of its radium problem. 

In addition, the CIC says that Waukesha is asking for too much water—enough water to build out its service territory beyond the city and to include Pewaukee, Delafield, Genesee and the Town of Waukesha.

 The problem with that expanded territory is that those towns don’t have a radium problem, and most of their residents have private wells and septic tanks, the coalition warns. The CIC says these towns shouldn’t be included in the application because they simply don’t have the same need for water as Waukesha does. 

If Waukesha gets its way and eventually includes these additional towns, expect a huge, costly investment in infrastructure that isn’t necessary under the CIC’s alternative. 

According to the CIC, Waukesha’s proposal will cost its water utility customers $334 million, while the CIC’s more limited proposal will cost about half that, $168 million. 

Waukesha’s residential water bills will spike from $261 annually to $897 annually by 2024, to CIC’s analysis of Waukesha’s water application.

UPDATE: I’ve just spoken to Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, who doesn't agree with CIC's assessment. He said that the municipalities in the expanded service area have all signed resolutions supporting Waukesha's application, and that Waukesha's water utility would only expand to those areas at their request, following a sewer system failure, for example. He also said that CIC's in-basin proposal conflicts with state laws governing groundwater. 

I'll have much more on this in the coming days.


 

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