Opinion: Once-wet Waukesha now thirsting
By Dennis A. Shook, for WisPolitics.com
Posted on OnMilwaukee.com 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.
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
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,
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
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.