Water-supply worries filter down
Pabst Farms' neighbors concerned about health of aquifer
over long run
By Darryl Enriquez
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published February 6th, 2005
Oconomowoc - A largely untapped source of radium-free
water flows beneath the sprawling 1,500-acre Pabst Farms
development, and as more of the porous soil of the former
fertile farmland is covered in concrete, measures to protect
the water source will be put to the test.
Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc sits over an aquifer that is
a ready source of radium-free water. The construction
of large homes is just one part of the development of
the area that has some people concerned about the long-term
health of the aquifer.
The Pabst Farms area, with an aquifer that nearly reaches
the surface instead of being 1,000 or more feet deep as
in cities to the east, could become crucial to solving
the water woes facing communities with illegal levels
of radioactive radium in their water supplies and failing
wells. Waukesha already has identified that aquifer as
a potential water source should its plan to tap Lake Michigan
Waukesha water officials say the city needs 20 million
gallons of fresh water daily. They want Waukesha to be
a test case for diverting Great Lakes water.
The Council of Great Lakes Governors is considering the
issue of sending Great Lakes water to cities like Waukesha
that are outside the drainage basin but within easy reach
of one of the lakes via a pipeline.
If the effort fails, then the city could consider the
possibility of tapping the western shallow aquifers that
begin at Pabst Farms and run through Jefferson County.
Watchdog agencies say the Pabst Farms storm water system
will protect the groundwater.
"They've gotten some bad raps for their building
projects out there, but one of the things that they did
do was to develop a plan for storm water management that
relies primarily on infiltration," said Bob Biebel,
an environmental engineer with the Southeastern Wisconsin
Regional Planning Commission.
Developers of Pabst Farms say they are using a new system
to replenish the aquifer by allowing rain and snow to
filter back into the soil. Traditional systems use holding
ponds to trap storm water that then evaporates or is directed
into drainage ditches.
Geological reports say that as little as 2 inches of precipitation
a year filters into much of the soil in Waukesha County,
whereas up to 9 inches a year is absorbed by the sandy
soils of Pabst Farms.
Despite the accolades it has received from watchdog state
agencies, Pabst Farms' neighbors, including those who
live immediately to the south on Middle Genesee Lake,
have their doubts about the system.
They fear that massive amounts of pollutants from rooftops
and roads cannot all be filtered out of the storm water
through the system that Pabst Farms has in place.
Over the years, as pollutants accumulate within the filtration
system, the quality of the shallow aquifer and the nearby
lakes that it feeds will be decreased, said Paul Erdmann,
a property owner on Middle Genesee Lake and a member of
its management commission.
Henry Elling, the manager and planner for the adjacent
Town of Summit, said the aquifer provides water for nearby
communities, which led to concerns about its continued
Another concern was where surface water would be directed
when development began.
A good percentage of rain and snow that isn't absorbed
by the ground drains south toward the town, and town officials
wanted assurances that the potential for flooding and
erosion problems would be addressed.
"That's the important thing for the town is that
we don't get this big flush into the Bark River or the
Genesee Lakes," he said.
Elling believes Pabst Farms has met those concerns.
Dan Warren, development manager with Pabst Farms Development
LLC, said plans for water management began about five
"I think what's important is that it's a collaborative
plan," Warren said. "We initiated it by bringing
on a consultant and a technical advisory group that included
representatives from all of the governing entities that
would be interested in storm water - the Department of
Natural Resources, the regional planning commission, the
Town of Summit, the City of Oconomowoc and Waukesha County's
parks and land use division.
"We had several meetings with that group, and as
a storm water plan was put together by the consultant
we would present it to the group, get feedback and modify
it to reflect their concerns. By the end of the day, we
had a plan that met everybody's needs.
"It doesn't happen very often that all of those
entities are involved. How it usually happens is that
a developer hires a consultant who comes up with a storm
water management plan and that plan is presented to the
community for its reaction.
"There's good ways to do things and better ways
to do it, and this was a better way to do it. Unquestionably,
groundwater is a precious resource. We're very fortunate,
and the fact that we're fortunate is all that much more
reason to protect it."
Analysts found that 80% of precipitation that landed
on the flat farm fields with porous soils stayed on the
farm while the rest flowed off, Warren said.
"The storm water management plan was designed to
keep it that way," Warren said.
Traditionally, storm water management uses holding ponds
to capture and retain runoff until it evaporates or flows
at a slow pace into nearby waterways.
Warren said design engineers with Pabst Farms have fashioned
a system of holding ponds that capture storm water and
allow pollutants to settle onto the bottom.
The clean surface water is then pushed into smaller ponds,
where it is absorbed by the ground and filtered into the
"Our storm water plan is that we take water off
of (industrial, commercial and residential) constructed
areas and put it into water quality ponds where water
is cleaned of pollutants from rooftops and streets and
then moved into infiltration areas . . . where it is allowed
to seep through underlying sand and gravel and recharge
"Every acre of the Pabst Farms development is bound
by this plan."
To keep the system operating properly, the holding areas
must be cleaned of sediments and contaminants every 15
to 30 years, he said.
Instead of relying on a homeowners association to be
the caretaker, the Pabst Farm Joint Stormwater Management
District was established.
Made up of two officials from Oconomowoc, two from the
Town of Summit and one from Pabst Farms, the district
has legal jurisdiction over all drainage issues that involve
the ambitious development.
District officials put together budgets and levy service
fees to all properties within the development.
The charges will appear on annual tax bills beginning
Warren says he is convinced that a Roundy's Inc. warehouse
will not be detrimental to Middle Genesee Lake and said
that the warehouse is prohibited from using salt on its
large lots and walkways.
Erdmann, who has lived on the lake since the early 1990s,
said the studies that back Warren's point are "just
a bunch of fluff" that engineers and developers use
to justify their conclusions about storm water management.
"In reality, I don't think anyone really knows what's
going to happen to the lake or the aquifer," he said.
"There are plenty of conflicting studies, and people
use whichever one suits them."
Erdmann said the lake has a delicate nature and depends
on the aquifer to maintain a steady depth.
An anecdotal example of that, he said, occurred last
summer when Pabst Farms pumped millions of gallons of
groundwater into an artificial pond south of I-94 and
east of Highway 67.
The lake level decreased until the pumping was discontinued,