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Great Lakes Article:

Trying to keep the water flowing
Communities meet to discuss ways to stop the draining of aquifers
By Darryl Enriquez
Milwaukee Jounral Sentinel
Published April 28, 2005

Brookfield - Many communities in the Milwaukee area are running deficits - not in municipal budgets, but in their use of a commodity that's considered far more precious than money: Water.

Cedarburg, Grafton, West Bend, Thiensville and Waukesha are depleting their sources of drinking water, an expert told his peers Wednesday.

Like a checking account holder whose withdrawals far exceed deposits, those communities and others that draw on underground aquifers for drinking water are racking up "deficit water balances."

If those communities do not eventually replenish their flagging water resources, the taps could someday run dry, said Doug Cherkauer, hydrology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The area has enough groundwater to serve its needs, including growth, he said. The problem is that treated wastewater is not being recycled back into the aquifers that municipalities are dependent on for drinking water. Instead, treated water ends up in rivers or other bodies of water that carry the diminishing resource away from the communities.

About 150 people listened to Cherkauer and other water experts at a symposium on water resource management that was held at the Embassy Suites Hotel Milwaukee-West. The symposium entitled "Solving the Water Puzzle" was hosted by the Public Policy Forum and the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce.

The Public Policy Forum is a non-partisan, Milwaukee-based group that researches public policy issues to enhance the effectiveness of government and development in southeast Wisconsin. Participants included environmental lawyers, engineers, government officials, educators, researchers and real estate developers.

"We can't have a prosperous region if we don't pay attention to our water," said Jeffrey Browne, Public Policy Forum president.

How to attain that goal led to ample discussions about policies, laws and traditions that are now getting in the way of putting together workable solutions.

Waukesha in the spotlight

Waukesha, with its interest in purchasing Lake Michigan water to replace its ailing water supply, has found itself in the national spotlight.

Its pursuit is tied into international talks among the states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes about the wisdom of selling Great Lakes water to communities, such as Waukesha, that lie outside the lakes' drainage basin.

Bob Biebel of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission said during his presentation on area water supply that Milwaukee has the capacity to sell 100,000 gallons a day to Waukesha and others but is prevented by policy from Great Lakes water regulators. A study is under way to possibly ease those restrictions.

Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility manager, distributed a plan the city is developing to conserve water and improve quality. The city wants to decrease water use by 20% by 2020, require that new developments do not affect the natural water cycle and ensure that rainfall replenishes groundwater aquifers used for drinking supplies.

Other panel discussions examined the need for more scientific study on the availability and sustainability of water in a state accustomed to considering it a boundless resource.

Call for research

Pat Marchese, a former government official and panel moderator at the symposium, said scientific research is needed as a base for public policy on water use.

Legal experts talked about existing obstructions that prevent water conservation, such as Wisconsin water rates that decrease in cost as water use is increased.

Jodi Habush Sinykin of Midwest Environmental Advocates said a better incentive for water conservation would be a rate structure that remains flat or increases with the increased use of water. She also argued that few state laws regulate the quantity of water use.

Peter McAvoy, a water policy consultant, closed the symposium by saying that the state has a history of innovative and creative management of its water resources.

"But we have to get on with it now," he said. "This is a new time, and some of the things that are being offered now will not serve us very well in the short term or in the long term. We can set the precedent in how we use our water, instead of other people telling us."

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