Waukesha, Wisc., Bids to Borrow Lake Michigan Water

Jan. 8, 2016
The proposal has advanced for review by Great Lakes governors & premiers

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted the City of Waukesha’s proposal to borrow Lake Michigan water to the governors and premiers of the other Great Lakes states and provinces today. After more than five years of analysis, the DNR concluded that Waukesha has no reasonable water supply alternative and qualifies for water under the Great Lakes Compact. 

“We are pleased that the DNR, after an exhaustive independent analysis, has concluded that borrowing Lake Michigan water is our only sustainable, healthy and cost-effective alternative,” said Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly. “We are confident that the governors and premiers, after reviewing the years of comprehensive studies, will agree.”

Under the proposal, the DNR could allow Waukesha to withdraw up to an average of 10.1 million gallons per day. “The amount Waukesha would withdraw is equivalent to one one-millionth of 1% of Great Lakes water, and we will return the same amount,” Reilly said. “There will be no impact on the Great Lakes.”  

Waukesha’s water supply is severely depleted. Geological features that restrict recharge of the aquifer, as well as high demand throughout southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, have made continued use of the aquifer unsustainable for the city.  As the aquifer declines, naturally occurring contaminants increase, including the carcinogen radium. Waukesha is under a court order to provide a water supply that meets safe drinking water standards. 

Under the Great Lakes Compact—an agreement between the Great Lakes states and provinces that became federal law in 2008—the Great Lakes governors and premiers must review the proposal to determine if it meets the compact’s requirements. Based on that fact-finding process, the governors will vote on whether to approve the request. 

The compact prohibits water from being pumped beyond counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin. However, it allows water to be used in straddling counties with the approval of the Great Lakes governors. Waukesha is in a straddling county and is only 1.5 miles outside of the basin divide, or about 17 miles from Lake Michigan. Under the compact, water must be returned to the Lakes after use and treatment. 

“This is not a matter of choosing between protection of the Great Lakes and safe drinking water for Waukesha,” Reilly said. “The compact agreement provides for both.” 

“The compact prohibits water from being pumped to faraway places, but it allows local needs to be met in straddling counties,” he said. “And it requires that the water be recycled back to the lakes, which Waukesha will do.” 

According to the DNR, Waukesha “has no reasonable water supply alternative…even considering conservation of existing water supplies.” Even if water demand would be far less than projected, all alternatives to Lake Michigan water “are likely to have greater adverse environmental impacts than the proposed Lake Michigan alternative due to projected impacts on wetlands and lakes.” 

DNR modeling found that even if withdrawals from the aquifer were limited, there would be unreasonable adverse impacts to 713 to 2,326 acres of wetlands under various groundwater alternatives, in addition to adverse impacts on streams and lakes. Updated modeling for the city in December showed that a short-term increase in the aquifer was temporary and ended in 2010. The 100-year trend that caused water levels to significantly drop will continue under the groundwater alternatives. Predicted increases in regional use, if Waukesha stays on the aquifer, would cause the aquifer to drop 200 to 300 additional feet over the next 50 years, according to the updated modeling. 

Source: Waukesha Water Utility

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