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Great Lakes Article:

Water, water everywhere, but none to drink
Lake Michigan water can be a barrier or binder
for southeastern Wisconsin. Longtime questions
need some short-term answers for region
By Dennis A. Shook
Published February 22nd, 2005

2005 may hold the answer to a decades-old question - can Milwaukee County and its suburbs co-exist?

Divining a solution will likely have Lake Michigan water as the focus. Milwaukee has been steadily shrinking in population during the past five decades, with many residents moving to the suburbs.

Waukesha County grew rapidly, but in recent years, residents have been faced with the grim reality that the very water beneath their feet is becoming less abundant and more expensive to extract and treat. As wells must be drilled deeper, the levels of such contaminants as radium has gone up.

The city of Waukesha, for instance, was recently ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the radium levels in its water. The city will have to drill shallow wells and blend that cleaner water with its larger municipal supply just to meet federal regulations.

A recent study completed by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that some municipal wells in the region are going down as deep as 2,200 feet, through layers of underlying dolomite, shale, and into the sandstone. To give that depth some definition, the tallest buildings in Milwaukee are 600 feet, or about one-third the distance of the wells.

Most domestic wells are only 100 to 300 feet deep. But those wells have had to be dug deeper as the increased usage drops the overall depth of the water level.

And cities like Waukesha are planning to drill more wells in that shallow range, in order to find cleaner water to mix with the deep water and to meet the federal standards, says Waukesha Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak.

Area residents using wells could soon find themselves having to drill their wells even deeper, at substantial cost.

As a result the suburban communities have begun to look to Milwaukee as the answer to this problem. The city — still stung by the effects of suburban immigration — has historically decided against discussing selling water west of the subcontinental divide that cuts Waukesha County nearly in half. But that changed when new Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was elected. Barrett indicated the change in an interview last May. Barrett said he would be willing to sell Lake Michigan water to the suburbs in exchange for Milwaukee sharing the profits of development gains that might result from such a sale.

"I’m sure that they have the water concerns and they are real concerns," Barrett said about the city of Waukesha. "Our concern is the growth of our tax base. If you are going to have companies that are locating outside the city of Milwaukee, I don’t want to see this become a sort of winner-take-all. You look at the Twin Cities, for example, and they have more of a tax sharing arrangement for major growth. That’s something we should be looking at in southeastern Wisconsin as well."

In the next eight to ten years, the city will need to find an alternate water supply and those costs range from $44 million to $77 million, Duchniak said recently. "That’s where we’re talking about significant rate increases," he said. "In eight or ten years from now, we’re looking at doubling or tripling the rates."

Calling it a "win/win" for both regions and for urban/suburban relations, Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley said after Barrett’s remarks that such cooperation "could be the most substantial step forward in the last 50 years."

Another major obstacle the city and suburbs will have to overcome in such an arrangement is a natural one, called the subcontinental divide. It runs diagonally through the region, from southwest to northeast, splitting communities like New Berlin and Brookfield in half. But it isn’t an obvious feature to most. You may see the subcontinental divide daily and not even be aware of it because it is not like the continental divide, where jagged peaks from the Rocky Mountains scratch the sky.

One obvious place it can be discerned is adjacent to the freeway where the Brookfield water tower is located. The high point there is the subcontinental divide, said SEWRPC executive director Phil Evenson.

But he also pointed out it is as flat as the parking lot at Brookfield Square. "The water that runs off from the Boston Store parking lot drains to the east, into a creek that heads into Milwaukee and into Lake Michigan," Evenson said. "The Sears store parking lot water drains to the west, into the Fox River system, and then into the Mississippi River."

In some of the communities in eastern Waukesha County, the problem is somewhat different than it is for the city of Waukesha. In the cities of New Berlin and Muskego, where the communities are split by the subcontinental divide, they would already be able to access Lake Michigan water on the eastern side and already send their wastewater back for treatment by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The city of New Berlin in June will complete a system to hook up to Lake Michigan water on the eastern half of the city, as far west as Sunnyslope Road. Mayor Ted Wysocki said the city also hopes to be able to hook up the western part of the city because it will return its wastewater.

David DeAngelis, former mayor of Muskego, and current village administrator for Elm Grove, said those two communities could both have access to Lake Michigan water. But so far, the residents have chosen to have their own wells or use water from municipal wells that do not have the same problems as Waukesha.

Much of the village of Menomonee Falls also lies east of the subcontinental divide and could access water.

But there are those who would try to damn and dam any transfer of Lake Michigan water from east to west. They contend that such a deal would be a diversion of water from the Great Lakes basin and set a precedent that would open the floodgates for requests from all over the country — even the world — for water from the Great Lakes. Most environmentalists say Waukesha and other suburbs would have to return their storm water as part of the deal.

But Waukesha County officials say that will cause the Fox River system to suffer because that is where the treated wastewater is currently sent. Duchniak said the bottom line is Waukesha already is part of the Lake Michigan system.

"About 40 percent of Waukesha groundwater recharges the Great Lakes" by seeping into the underground aquifer that holds the water and returns it to the Great Lakes, Duchniak said.

So he believes it is not really a diversion of water from the system. Duchniak said it can be shown that there would be no need for an expensive system to return water to Milwaukee even though Waukesha is located west of the subcontinental divide because Waukesha groundwater seeps back into the Great Lakes basin.

If Waukesha can successfully make that argument, the problem would be solved. And the city intends to ask Gov. Jim Doyle to make that argument to the other Great Lakes governors this year. Doyle has vowed to cooperate, but said, "it will be a very, very difficult row to hoe. By law, (Waukesha will) need the approval of every single governor of the eight Great Lakes states. The chance of that happening is really remote."

Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation, Chicago, has been critical of any diversions of water west of the subcontinental divide. "Waukesha is trying to short-circuit the process," he said of its efforts for a quick solution.

Evenson said there needs to be a regional approach to water use planning and SEWRPC hopes to explore options some time in the next year or so. Meanwhile, Waukesha will try to find the best short-term solution to filling its needs for more than nine to 14 million gallons of water each day.

In case of unexpected surges in demand, the system must actually be prepared to supply up to 24 million gallons per day, said Duchniak. "We’re concentrating our efforts right now on the shallow wells," he said. "We want to develop two shallow wells."

It is the same water source that most of the wells in Lake Country communities like Delafield, Dousman, Hartford, and parts of Oconomowoc use for both municipal systems and as a source individual wells.

That water would be mixed at the water reservoirs with water from the deep wells in order to meet the federal radium standards.

But that mixing will not meet long-term needs. The city is already considering if it should drill deeper wells to the west of the city to meet the long-term need. The city has been considering sites as far out as Oconomowoc and Watertown.

But that would come at a cost of about $80 million, as opposed to about half that much for accessing Lake Michigan water. The impact on the average homeowner served by Waukesha would be to double the current $200 water bill to about $400. Most estimates on developing that alternative will also mean not solving the long-term Waukesha water problem until about 2010.

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