Does Waukesha Really Need Lake Michigan Water?
And other big questions about the Great Lakes Water Compact
The city of Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water is the first of its kind under the Great Lakes Water Compact, and with it comes scrutiny. Here are some of the biggest questions about Waukesha’s request, and how it will be handled in Wisconsin and by the Compact’s partners.
Q: Hasn’t Waukesha gotten the OK to purchase Lake Michigan water? The mayor already has been discussing potential deals with officials from Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine.
A: Waukesha hasn’t gotten the OK yet, although its Common Council recently voted to move ahead with its request for Great Lakes water (over the reservations of new Mayor Jeff Scrima). After years of study, Waukesha has sent materials to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is now conducting a preliminary review.
Q: Does Waukesha really need Lake Michigan water?
A: The majority of the Waukesha Common Council thinks so, although Mayor
Scrima has said that the city hasn’t looked at all of its options other than Lake Michigan water. Environmental groups are also
questioning the request, saying that Waukesha
could do more to conserve water as well as treat and reuse its wastewater.
“They have a sustainable water supply for the next few decades if they conserve
it,” said Cheryl Nenn, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
Duchniak, the general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, says that there
are only three options: groundwater, water from the deep aquifer and Lake Michigan water. The groundwater and deep aquifer
water sources are limited and have contamination, making Lake
Michigan water the preferred source for the long term.
believe that if we do go with another alternative, whether it be groundwater or
one of the groundwater alternatives, at some point down the road the residents
will be facing the same issue,” Duchniak said.
Q: Why is Waukesha
asking for twice as much water as it currently uses? Won’t this fuel more
A: Currently, Waukesha uses about 9 million gallons of water daily (mgd),
but it’s asking for a total of 18.5 mgd of Great Lakes water, which represents
its maximum daily demand in about a hundred years. “That would happen maybe
five or six times a year if at all,” Duchniak said. The average day’s
consumption would be about 10.9 mgd decades from now.
Q: If Waukesha’s request for its ultimate
water use is approved under the Compact, would it immediately start drawing its
maximum amount of requested water from Lake Michigan?
A: No. Although Waukesha
is requesting 18 mgd for its ultimate water needs, it’s making a short-term
request of about 9.5 mgd for its immediate needs. Waukesha and the DNR would revisit the issue
every 20 years and adjust the water amount if necessary. In that way,
Wisconsin—not the Great Lakes states—oversees the amount of Lake Michigan water
to be sent to Waukesha.
governors don’t want you coming back all the time and requesting more and more
water,” Duchniak said. “They just want to have one large request and have the
state deal with those smaller requests.”
if Waukesha gets the go-ahead for its short-term
needs of 9.5 mgd, it would stop pumping from its deep aquifer, which is being
depleted rapidly, and start using Lake Michigan
water. But it would also begin building infrastructure that could handle its
maximum daily demand of 18.5 mgd from the lake.
Q: What will happen to the water that’s withdrawn from Lake
A: Under the Compact guidelines, Waukesha
will have to return it to Lake Michigan as
clean as it was when it was withdrawn. The city plans to treat the water, then
send it to Underwood Creek, which flows into the Great
Riverkeeper Nenn questions this plan, saying the creek—like most urban
waterways—is already under stress and could be further degraded by plans to
reconstruct and possibly expand the Zoo Interchange. That would increase runoff
to Underwood Creek and Honey Creek.
Q: Will the DNR rubber stamp Waukesha’s
request and allow the city to start purchasing Lake
A: The DNR doesn’t have the ultimate say in whether Waukesha will receive the water. Right now,
it’s conducting a preliminary review of Waukesha’s
data. According to Shaili Pfeiffer of the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and
Groundwater, Waukesha must make its case under Wisconsin law and under the Great Lakes Water Compact
guidelines. To do so, Pfeiffer said, Waukesha must show that there is no
reasonable alternative to Lake Michigan water—that local water sources and
conservation efforts won’t meet its needs—and that the water will be returned
to Lake Michigan in good condition.
The DNR could find that Waukesha doesn’t need Lake Michigan water. It could ask Waukesha to do more studies. Or it could find that Waukesha has submitted enough information and has made its case. If or when that happens, the DNR will finalize the application and send it to the Compact partners.
Q: What role will the other Great Lakes Compact states play?
A: If the DNR approves Waukesha’s
application, it will send the material to the Compact’s Regional Body, which is
made up of representatives from the eight Great Lakes
states and two Canadian provinces. It will analyze the application and make a
recommendation within 90 days. It could recommend approval, rejection or
provisional approval if certain conditions are met.
recommendation will go to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water
Resources Council, which is made up of the eight states only, without the
Canadian provinces. The council must consider the recommendation and take a
vote, but no deadline is set for that vote. A single “no” vote would deny the
request, although a state may abstain from voting if it wishes. That would
indicate that the state doesn’t necessarily agree with the request, but it’s
not going to stand in the way of the water diversion. Politically, it would
lessen the chances that a rejected state would retaliate in the future and vote
against another state’s application.
Q: Do Wisconsin residents have any say
A: A little, but not a whole lot. Right now, the DNR is conducting a
public comment period on the scope of the application’s Environmental Impact
Statement. In plain English, that means that the public can send the DNR the
topics it wants the department to consider during its review of Waukesha’s application.
For more information, or to submit a topic, go to dnr.wi.gov/org/water/dwg/WaukeshaDiversionApp.htm.
The DNR will also post all of the materials related to the application on its website and conduct at least one public hearing if it goes ahead with Waukesha’s application.