Waukesha's request for Great Lakes water is complex first test of law

June 21, 2011

WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes
Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn is concerned about the impact Waukesha's treated wastewater will have on Underwood Creek.
WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes
Dan Duchniak, the Waukesha Water Utility manager, says the city has to add chemicals to its water to filter out radium.
WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes
Hobo Springs, an example of what's left of Waukesha's once thriving natural springs.

A law that’s designed to prevent other parts of the country and the world from draining the Great Lakes is getting its first big test in our own backyard.

The water-use compact is part of an agreement between eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces to figure out who can have Great Lakes water. It prohibits diversions, though it makes a few exceptions, including for communities that straddle the Great Lakes basin or for those that are in counties on that line.

One of those communities, a suburb of Milwaukee called Waukesha, is asking for Great Lakes water because it has too much radium in its water supply.

Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak said the city’s had five well failures in the last year. The aquifer it depends on is getting lower.

“That water is getting older and older and older, and so the radium concentration levels get higher and higher,” Duchniak said. “As you draw down deeper and deeper in the aquifers, you get to a point where it’s brackish water or higher levels of salt. And so what you’re going to have to do then is remove the salt out of the water because people do not want to have water to have a high salt concentration. It’s not aesthetically pleasing and it’s not good to use.”

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Duchniak said the city is looking to lake water because there are no other good alternatives.  He said other water sources aren’t as reliable long-term or would cause more harm to the environment.

Local environmentalists aren’t convinced.

Cheryl Nenn, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, is worried about the impact on Underwood Creek, where Waukesha would return its treated wastewater, as required by the compact. The creek empties into Menominee River, then into the Milwaukee River and finally into Lake Michigan.

This river already has flooding issues.

"It can rise by 5 to 6 feet within 15 to 30 minutes,” Nenn said. “It can be pretty scary to be out there right at the beginning of a rain event. It’s pretty dramatic how fast the creek can change.”

Nenn said the discharge from Waukesha would increase that flooding dramatically. The city proposes to divert its water during the worst storms and make up for the lost water by bringing in water from another system later.  Nenn said blending water like that appears to violate the compact and ups the risk of introducing invasive species or disease.

“We’re certainly worried about any impacts to water quantity that cause a flooding issues for folks downstream, but (we’re) also looking at impacts to water quality not only for fish and critters that live in the stream but for kids who play here in the summer,” Nenn said. “A very high percentage of that river water is going to have treated wastewater in it.”

Peter Annin, the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” said Waukesha’s solution to this has been described as “Rube Goldberg like.”  Getting water under the compact is a complex process by design. Annin said Waukesha’s application is so complicated, it would take at least two trips up the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) to explain it.

That’s a concern to some lawmakers, officials and environmental advocates. They said they’d hoped that this first big test would have been, well, a little cleaner, a little less complicated.

That’s because they’re concerned this case will set precedents that could determine how high – or low – the bar will be set for future diversions from the Great Lakes.

“By setting the bar too low, by ignoring the fact this is the first big precedent set, would just open the door to a bunch of mediocre, subpar applications around the region,” said lawyer Jodi Habush Sinykin with Midwest Environmental Advocates. “If we have this first application meet a high bar, we can have a far better chance  that the rest of the region will follow likewise.”

To give you an idea just how complicated this application is, consider the fact the city’s own mayor is arguing the city has other alternatives than lake water. He won election partly by arguing against the need for Milwaukee water.

The rest of the council has pretty much voted to say, hey, no, we don’t have other alternatives. That’s a key requirement under the compact. Waukesha needs to get an OK from all eight Great Lakes governors, and it’s easy to see at least one set of gubernatorial eyebrows wagging over the mayor’s stance.

One hundred years ago, Waukesha used to have so much water, it bubbled from the ground all over the city. The famous springs fed lavish resorts and one of the nation’s largest bottling companies.

Duchniak took me to Hobo Springs to show me part of what’s left. Hobo Springs is now just a small stone fountain with a little water and a lot of pennies, like a wishing well.

“It is kind of ironic that the once water capital of the world is now looking for water and is looking at the Great Lakes as their water supply,” Duchniak said.