Public Sharply Divided Over Waukesha Proposal to Divert Lake Michigan Water

Feb 19, 2016

The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governor and Premiers held the only scheduled public hearing as it scrutinizes Waukesha’s application on Thursday.

City leaders say that after years of fine-tuning their application, diversion is the only viable solution to replace Waukesha's current water source – deep wells that have become increasingly contaminated with radium.

Some believe more public conversations are in order because of the importance of the City’s request to divert up to 10.1 million gallons of water a day from the basin by 2050.

More than 200 people gathered inside a Carroll University auditorium. The panel representing States and Canadian provinces were kept busy for nearly five hours, listening to what people had to say in their three-minute-allotted time.

Waukesha’s mayor Shawn Reilly was one of them.

“The decision on Waukesha’s application is not a choice between protecting the Great Lakes and providing safe drinking water for Waukesha by establishing a clear wall at the borders of straddling counties and by requiring routine flow, the Compact ensures that both goals can be met,” Reilly says.

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett
Credit S Bence

Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett was next in line. He believes Waukesha’s plan should be modified, and adds it’s not too late for Waukesha to purchase water from Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee has passed a resolution that is still in effect that says we can negotiate over the sale of water to the current surface area. I am here to say that we are still willing to do that. I believe that makes the most sense for rate payers, for the environment, for our utility, for everyone involved. What we have is a clear difference between state law and federal law. My read on this is that federal law is going to trump the state law,” Barret says.

Waukesha’s application is built on the premise that it MUST extend its water service outside the city limits. That would include portions of the towns of Waukesha, Genesee and Delafield.

Wisconsin’s DNR concurs, saying state law requires a water service supply area has to match its regional sewer service area. The measure is written into Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Compact implementation law.

Part of the debate over Waukesha’s application hinges on the fact that the Great lakes Compact itself does not include Wisconsin’s water service supply regulation.

The Mayor of Racine, John Dickert is concerned about Waukesha’s planned return flow. Waukesha wants its effluent to travel via the Root River on its way back to Lake Michigan.

“We do not want what the DNR will allow to come down the stream – additional pharmaceuticals, chloride, fluoride, microbeads, you name it. While that may be acceptable when it comes to discharges, I will be frank with you, we don’t want it. And we don’t want it because that not only runs through this heartland of our city where all of these activities are going out, but it empties out into the lakefront next to my North Beach, which is an award-winning beach,” Dickert says.

A number of people shared concern about water conservation.

In addition to “proving” that Lake Michigan is the only reasonable water supply option for Waukesha, it must implement an aggressive conservation program.

Karen Hobbs with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office said Waukesha isn’t doing enough.

“The measures they’ve had the greatest success with have been mandatory measures that were introduced in 2006 and 2007. But no mandatory measures have been introduced since that time, despite clear evidence to their effectiveness. Instead Waukesha has largely relied on voluntary measures and education. And while both of those are important to be sure, they’re not signs of a robust and dynamic plan,” Hobbs says.

Mary Adelmeyer says Waukesha’s conservation plan has come a long way. She works for Waukesha’s water utility.

“In 2006 Waukesha Water Utility was the first municipality in the state of Wisconsin to implmenet an annual sprinkling ordinance. This ordinance applies to all the customers in the City of Waukesha. It goes into effect in May through October and bans all daytime sprinkling between 9 am to 5 pm. On average Waukesha uses less water in the summer than it did before these tools were implemented, even during the drought of 2012,” Edelmeyer adds, “when comparing Waukesha’s summer use to neighboring communities that have the same weather conditions, Waukesha uses a lower proportion of water in the summer than its neighbors.”

In the opposition camp, it was striking that people traveled from neighboring Great Lakes states to express concern.

That included Louise Seagroves with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. She urged delegates to uphold the Great Lakes Compact.

Canadian and US Great Lakes delegates listened to what the public had to say for nearly five hours.
Credit S Bence

 "We need a strong Compact and we need a strong council in order to hold every state accountable to the other states in the basin and to protect the valuable waters from individual interests and individual agendas,” Seagroves says.

She says she formerly worked as an environmental review and permitting specialists.

“I worked on large infrastructure projects with complex natural resource impacts, so I’m familiar with the kinds of trade-offs and constraints projects like this one face. I’ve drawn on my experience to take a technical look at Waukesha’s proposal and this is what I see: The City of Waukesha has developed its request based on its growth and development goals, the Wisconsin DNR has evaluated the proposal relative to their regulatory obligations,” Seagrove adds, “And now it’s up to the council, and really we’re relying on the council to ensure the kind of accountability that the Compact represents,” Seagroves says.

Lynn Broaddus’ is a Wisconsin voice. She formerly headed The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s environment program. She urged the Great Lakes delegates to consider innovative ways to manage Waukesha’s water challenge..

"Waukesha’s alternatives’ analysis was done in 2002 and only seriously examined additional wells as an option for new water sources. While time stands still with the analysis and options presented, the water technology revolution has been moving forward,” Broaddus says.

She point to technology being used in other parts of the country.

“There are companies making turnkey technologies that are about the size of a washing machine. They are standalone units that can recycle gray water from homes for outdoor irrigation or toilet flushing. They’re being used in neighborhoods in California,” Broaddus says.

She suggests looking at harvesting rainwater.

“Treat it and use it on site for both external and potable use. It’s being used in Austin Texas and other parts of the country to supply their water when groundwater becomes scarce. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to use those here,” Broaddus says.

Valerie Kraemer from the town of Oconomowoc shared the briefest and most succinct vote in support of Waukesha’s plan.

“I have lived in the county for over 30 years and I come from a family of avid hunters and fishermen who have been watching this project unfold. We are concerned about Wisconsin’s wildlife, lakes and rivers and believe the project is the best option with the least impact on wetlands and other natural resources,” Cramer says.

Representatives from the Great Lakes states and provinces will meet again on April 21 in Chicago.

The Great lakes states will then gather at least 30 days later to make a decision. In order to be approved, all eightstates must agree on Waukesha’s application.

The public still has the opportunity to comment on the proposal through March 14.