Waukesha’s Request for Great Lakes Water Should Be Nixed

Waukesha's Request for Great Lakes Water Should be Nixed Urban Milwaukee, July 20, 2015
Author: Cheryl Nenn

The City of Waukesha is seeking to become the first community outside of the Great Lakes Basin to obtain a water diversion under the Great Lakes Compact. The City of Waukesha has discredited viable, local water supply alternatives to Great Lakes water for the sole purpose of fueling unlimited industrial expansion and residential development at a high cost to its ratepayers. As such, Waukesha has not shown that they meet the high bar set by the Great Lakes Compact to even ask for Great Lakes water. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should not approve Waukesha’s request for Great Lakes water.

It has taken five years for the DNR to complete their review and tacit approval of Waukesha’s water diversion application, mainly due to Waukesha’s lack of diligence in submitting complete information for the DNR’s environmental analysis. Even now, Waukesha has created a false need for water by including a proposed expanded water supply service area in its application (an increase of 40 percent) and has inflated future water demand estimates by cherry picking data to make reasonable alternatives seem unreasonable—all for the sake of industrial and residential expansion outside the city limits.

Communities in the “expanded” service area have not demonstrated a need for water and have not enacted any conservation measures (per Compact requirements). Waukesha contends that including the expanded water supply service area is necessary to align with proposed sanitary sewer service area plans developed by SEWRPC. However, this interpretation conflicts with the basic language of the Compact, a federal law.

As a coalition of environmental and health organizations, one of our top priorities is to ensure people have access to clean drinking water. Our response to Waukesha’s lack of effort in thoroughly and responsibly evaluating all of its water supply alternatives, as the Great Lakes Compact says it must, has been to incur our own costs to provide Waukesha and the DNR with an independent analysis, fully supported with well-vetted research and sound science.


The data is in and the conclusions are clear: Waukesha can sustainably meet its current and future water needs for its existing water supply service area by treating existing deep groundwater wells for radium and other contaminants, while continuing to use its existing shallow wells.


While these suggestions of treating Waukesha’s water and limiting water supply to Waukesha’s current service area are nothing new, data supporting a non-diversion solution with radium treatment as Waukesha’s best option is new. For example, recent data shows that water demand has decreased significantly, and that decline in water pumping by Waukesha and surrounding communities has led to a significant rebound in the deep aquifer. Our Non-Diversion Solution provides information that the DNR did not see in Waukesha’s application and that Waukesha has chosen not to share.

Add in that the Waukesha Water Utility’s own budget for 2015 projects a $334 million cost for its proposed Great Lakes diversion that will increase residential utility bills from around $260 per year to almost $900 per year by 2024. This Non-Diversion Solution is the most cost effective solution to Waukesha’s water supply issues.

Waukesha also says its return flow (returning an equal amount of water bac to Lake Michigan) will be of a higher quality than the current water quality in the Root River, an already impaired waterway for phosphorus, and that their discharge would improve water quality due to dilution. However, adding diluted pollution still adds pollution loading to the waterway, and will still contribute to the overall impairment of the Root River and downstream Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes are one of our region’s most important natural resources. The Great Lakes Compact was created to make sure water stays in the Great Lakes so it can continue to provide for future generations. Despite their vast size, only one percent of Great Lakes water is renewable every year–with most of that water being a one time gift from the Glaciers. Waukesha’s diversion application is the first test of the Compact since it was ratified in 2008, so it’s vital the Wisconsin DNR get this right by looking at the proposal with a critical eye, especially in light of this new information.

Waukesha Water Utility has stated many times it would like the decision concerning their proposed Great Lakes diversion to be based on sound science. Our coalition has just provided the Utility and the DNR with additional information to help them do just that.

It’s time to hold Waukesha accountable for providing safe and clean water in a way that is respectful of its own residents, the Great Lakes Compact, and the Great Lakes.

The DNR released its draft environmental impact study and preliminary decision on Waukesha’s diversion application on June 25, 2015. Comments on both are being accepted until August 28, 2015 at DNRWaukeshaDiversionApp@wisconsin.gov. We urge concerned citizens to attend hearings, submit comments and stay apprised of any further developments by visitingwww.protectourgreatlakes.org. If Wisconsin approves Waukesha’s application, it will be forwarded to Ontario and Quebec as well as the seven other Great Lakes states for further review.

Cheryl Nenn, of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, wrote this on behalf of the Compact Implementation Coalition, a coalition of environmental and health groups.