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Great Lakes Article:

Editorial: Tapping into Lake Michigan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published February 2, 2006

A survey released last week by the Public Policy Forum shows that most people throughout southeastern Wisconsin see water as a regional resource and a regional issue. And, according to the survey, people want their political leaders in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Ozaukee, Kenosha, Washington and Walworth counties to work together to solve regional problems.

That means that most people recognize that Waukesha's water problems are everyone's problems and require a regional solution, which may in the end mean obtaining water from Lake Michigan.

City of Waukesha officials are seeking water from Lake Michigan because the city's wells are drawing water from ever deeper in an underground water supply that may be running short. The deeper the wells go, the more radium enters the municipal water system.

Radium, a naturally occurring element found in underground sandstone, has been linked to various cancers, and federal officials have set pretty strict (too strict, in our view) standards on how much radium can be in the water supply.

Waukesha is not the only community in this bind, and more communities will undoubtedly find themselves in similar straits in the future. The problem with obtaining Lake Michigan water is that Waukesha sits just outside the Great Lakes natural basin. Water from Waukesha doesn't drain into the Great Lakes; it drains into the Mississippi River via the Fox River and other waterways.

It's true that the amount of water Waukesha is seeking would not be a big dip into the Great Lakes' water supply, and it is true that a few other communities have been granted diversions. The biggest unnatural change, of course, occurred when Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River more than 100 years ago. The reason Chicago doesn't add much pollution to Lake Michigan is that much of its effluent is flushed toward the Mississippi River.

It's also true that Waukesha has done much to lessen its use of water and be responsible about conservation. And it's true that denying Waukesha water from Lake Michigan doesn't mean people in Waukesha County will pack up their belongings and move back to Milwaukee or other places inside the Great Lakes' basin. If they move because water availability becomes a serious problem, it will most likely be farther west, where the wells aren't drying up, perhaps out of the region entirely.

Still, if Waukesha is granted water, it will set a precedent for other communities outside the basin. It would also require agreement from the other Great Lakes states under an international agreement that is being revised. And at least some of the reason for the lowering wells is past development that simply assumed there would always be a plentiful supply of water.

Waukesha is as critical to the economic health of the region as Milwaukee is. Without a healthy Waukesha, there won't be a healthy southeastern Wisconsin. The region must work together to solve Waukesha's problem, because it's a good idea and because it's what the people of the region want. In the end, that may mean piping Lake Michigan water to Waukesha, although we still like the idea that the water should be pumped back to the lake. But maybe paying for that should become a regional responsibility.

We also like the idea of a quid pro quo; perhaps Waukesha officials could offer their support for a more effective and larger mass transit system serving the region's workers and employers.

Whatever the answer, it's clear that the people of the region want officials to stop their territorial feuds and come together to solve real problems. A good place to start would be with water.


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