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Great Lakes Article:

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 fail.

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.

Absorbent soil
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 health.

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.

Flowing together
Dan Warren, development manager with Pabst Farms Development LLC, said plans for water management began about five years ago.

"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 aquifer.

"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 the aquifer.

"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 in December.

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, he said.

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