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
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
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
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.