DNR Halts Waukesha’s Water Request
Rule out all other alternatives, DNR Secretary Frank says
Specifically, DNR Secretary Matt Frank wrote in a
June 8 letter to Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima that the city’s application for
Lake Michigan water—the first application under the Great Lakes Water Compact
for a “straddling community” (a community that is located within both the Great
Lakes and the Mississippi River basins)—was deficient in three major ways:
- Waukesha failed to prove that Great
Lakes water was the only viable option for a sustainable water
supply. Frank cited ongoing discussions within Waukesha
about alternatives to Great Lakes water. “The
department cannot move forward on reviewing the application and the city must
confirm that Great Lakes water is in fact the
only long-term sustainable water option,” he wrote.
- Waukesha identified three sources of Lake Michigan water—Milwaukee, Racine and Oak Creek—but did not
provide a return flow option for each withdrawal source. The compact requires
that the return flow be as close as possible to the withdrawal source.
- Waukesha failed to supply a cost analysis for all three Lake Michigan water sources.
provides more complete data and analysis and sends the $5,000 application fee,
Ebersberger said the DNR would take another look at the request. If or when the
DNR signs off on Waukesha’s request, it will
pass on the application to the other Great Lakes
compact partners for review and approval.
‘A Back-and-Forth Process’
Dan Duchniak, manager of the Waukesha Water Utility,
said that the city has all of the information that has been requested and
expects to respond to the DNR within the next few weeks. Duchniak said the
DNR’s request for more data and analysis was a routine part of the application
“This is to be expected,” Duchniak said. “It is a
But environmental groups cheered the DNR’s decision,
saying that by asking for a thorough analysis the agency was setting a high
standard for Great Lakes water diversions.
For more than a year, a coalition of environmental
groups has been pushing both Waukesha and the
DNR for a transparent, thorough analysis of Waukesha’s water supplies and future needs
before signing off on the application. Coalition members include Milwaukee
Riverkeeper, Midwest Environmental Advocates, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Sixteenth Street Community
Waukesha County Environmental Action League and the Wisconsin Wildlife
“This application will be a test case for the Great Lakes compact,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, counsel
for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It gives Wisconsin the opportunity to be in the
driver’s seat on how we want to proceed with the evaluation.”
Disagreement Within Waukesha
Frank’s letter cited the reported disagreement between
the powers-that-be in Waukesha
as one of the reasons why the DNR has returned the application for more study.
On one side, the Waukesha Water Utility and the
Waukesha Common Council, which approved the application, support the request
for a Lake Michigan diversion.
On the other side, Mayor Jeff Scrima, elected in
April, has questioned whether Waukesha truly
needs Lake Michigan water or whether local sources within the Mississippi River Basin
can be tapped and treated instead. Scrima made his reservations about the water
request a centerpiece of his spring campaign for mayor, saying that the city
hadn’t fully explored all of its options. As recently as mid-May, he had
invited experts to testify about new technologies that potentially could remove
radium from the city’s water supply. The city currently relies on pumping from
its deep aquifer, which draws water that has unsafe levels of radium and must
be cleaned up by 2018. Groundwater and shallow aquifer water aren’t adequate
for the city’s needs, Great Lakes water
The DNR’s Ebersberger said the disagreement
indicated that Waukesha
hadn’t made a complete analysis of its water options.
“One of the first steps is that you have to show
that you have no reasonable supply alternative in the basin,” Ebersberger said.
“But to the extent that they are actively discussing and pursuing water supply
alternatives, I think it indicates that they’re not through with that
Ebersberger said consensus among Waukesha decision-makers was critical to the
“One of the things we want to make sure of is that
the decision-makers and the governing structure in the city support the
application,” Ebersberger said. “We don’t want to review the application only
to find out that the city doesn’t support its own application. We want to make
sure that when Waukesha
submits its application that it has the official support of the city.”
A Test Case for the Compact
Habush Sinykin said that Waukesha
hadn’t made its case that it required Great Lakes
water and suggested that a multiphase option be given greater consideration.
Instead of complete reliance on one water source, a combination of sources
could be used—deep aquifer water that’s been treated for radium, groundwater
and strengthened conservation efforts. She said new sources within the Mississippi River Basin—for
example, from nearby quarries or the riverbanks of the Fox
River—could be tapped as well.
“This is one of the reasons why the DNR recommended
further inquiry,” Habush Sinykin said.
She also questioned Waukesha’s
cost estimates for tapping into Lake Michigan
water, which would require extensive infrastructure, a purchase agreement with
a water supplier, and ongoing energy use.
“It’s hard to get any sense of what the costs are,”
Habush Sinykin said. “You’re relying on what [the consultants] have found. But
we don’t have an independent engineer or economist giving us some other
perspective on it.”
In its recent application, Waukesha wrote that it would cost an
estimated $164 million to build the infrastructure to treat its wastewater and
return it via Underwood Creek. But it didn’t satisfy the DNR’s standard for
providing a thorough financial analysis about the cost of purchasing water from
each municipality as well as the cost of returning it to the Lake
Duchniak said that the application did not include
detailed financial information because city attorneys said that would put the
city at a disadvantage in its negotiations with the three municipalities that
could provide Lake Michigan water.
“We’re working with the DNR on providing them with that information, but for it to potentially remain confidential,” Duchniak said.