Water, water everywhere, but none to
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.