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Great Lakes Article:

Opinion: Once-wet Waukesha now thirsting for water
By Dennis A. Shook, for
Posted on July 12, 2005

Waukesha County is pushing for Lake Michigan water as hard as someone crossing the desert without a canteen.

But about a century ago, the only thing people knew about Waukesha was its famous spring water, bubbling up in large quantities from the earth.

The claim by Col. Richard Dunbar in 1848 that drinking from the Bethesda Spring water had healed him from his deathbed ended up sparking an era that led to a massive migration of people and wealth to Waukesha.

Now, the same cities that once were dotted with tourist resorts have had to resort to drilling thousands of feet into the earth just to hit a sufficient supply of water. And in most cases, that water is laced with radium to such levels that exceed federal standards.

What happened?

Bob Biebel, the special projects engineer for a regional water study being conducted by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, explained it simply as too many businesses, municipalities, and people punching holes in the ground to get at the water as Waukesha County grew from Cow County, U.S.A. to a well-developed suburban area.

Like a straw stuck into a glass of water, all that withdrawal caused the water table to drop so precipitately that wells went dry and many springs dried up with it.

Today, there are only two major springs that remain flowing freely, the Bethesda Spring near the west side of downtown, and the Silurian Spring, located behind the city's downtown post office. And neither has been used for drinking for many years.

But during the height of the springs era -- from 1868 to 1918 -- there were as many as a couple of dozen springs being used to provide growing numbers of tourists the water that was valued nationwide.

John M. Schoenknecht, a Waukesha historian who wrote a book on "The Great Waukesha Springs Era -- 1868-1918," said as many as 60 springs were claimed in Waukesha. But most of them were nothing more than holes poked into the ground that struck water, a precursor of things to come on a much larger scale.

The water developed a reputation for curative powers.

Coming out of the ground at about 52 degrees, it was also refreshing in a time before refrigeration was common, Schoenknecht says.

The water also did not have a lot of iron but it did have bicarbonate of lime and bicarbonate of soda, he said.

Schoenknecht said to now see the place once called "The Saratoga of the West," after that Eastern water destination, as in need of water is "very ironic and sad."

Since the city of Waukesha has been forced to drill so deep that it hit radium-contaminated water, government leaders have been forced to forsake water from the ground. Instead, the city has looked east to Lake Michigan, a nearly inexhaustible supply of water.

A draft copy of the new Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact outlines a plan that would allow Waukesha to apply for connection to Lake Michigan water.

The completed documents are expected to be formally released in a few weeks by the Council of Great Lakes Governors. A series of public hearings on the new compact would then be held before the pact is ready for signing by the eight council members.

The proposed language in the new compact would allow a "community within a straddling county" to be served by the basin. That definition would likely include the city of Waukesha, as the definition says such communities would be "any incorporated city, town, or the equivalent thereof, that is located outside the basin but wholly within a county that lies partly within the basin."

The city of Waukesha is west of the subcontinental divide that marks the western edge of the basin. But the eastern part of Waukesha County is within that basin.

But the compact would still require unanimous approval from all eight council members so it is hardly assured.

Meanwhile, Biebel is heading a SEWRPC two-year study on water use and he said each possible option will be weighted in that review.

But Biebel said a major impediment for Waukesha could be dealing with the return flow of water back to Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. The draft compact still calls for Waukesha wastewater to be returned to Milwaukee so there is not a steady reduction in Lake Michigan. That would require a costly piping infrastructure to be built, he said.

Former Gov. Tony Earl, once the head of the state Department of Natural Resources, said he remembers when the Waukesha area was more pasture than pavement. He often tells the story of how Chicago fought for Waukesha's water and was fought off. He also preaches chapter and verse on conservation as a major part of the Waukesha problem.

Earl said the first Great Lakes Charter was signed in Milwaukee when he was governor, in 1984. He said he still believes in that concept of not allowing any Lake Michigan water outside of the natural basin.

"The easy answer is to let Waukesha hook up to Lake Michigan water and return (used) water to Milwaukee," Earl said. "But that's a finite resource too. And Milwaukee can't handle the wastewater it has now. If Milwaukee accedes to that, they really haven't learned anything. To take on more volumes of wastewater now would be foolhardy in the extreme."

Earl said the best answer is to try to return to conservation and recharging the aquifer.

"If we are ready to learn, what this situation has taught us is that we need to do a much better job of conservation," Earl said. "We need to provide more green space to allow water to perk down. But I don't know if we have learned that lesson."

It could also be a case of people who never knew the area's proud past being doomed to repeat it.

Dennis Shook, who reports on Milwaukee Notes for WisPolitics, is the political reporter for the Waukesha Freeman.

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