If Waukesha gets water, will Las Vegas
ENVIRONMENT: Officials say development in areas with insufficient
water leads to diversion requests.
By Felicity Barringer
New York Times
Posted on the Duluth News Tribune on August 15, 2019
WAUKESHA, Wis. - Time was when Waukesha's mineral-rich
water was coveted by Milwaukeeans and Chicagoans, who
scorned the Lake Michigan water lapping at their shores.
In 1892, one speculator even tried to pipe the city's
water to Chicago for the coming World's Columbian Exposition,
until aroused Waukeshans trained pistols, pitchforks and
fire hoses on the pipelayers, who retreated.
What a difference a century makes. Waukesha has sucked
so much water from its deep aquifer that it is now looking
to the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan, just as Chicagoans
once eyed its water.
But the authorities who control some of the largest bodies
of fresh water in the world are not sure that any of it
should go to communities like Waukesha, which is 15 miles
from the lake's shore but outside of its watershed.
Their fear is that without strict rules on who gets Great
Lakes water and who doesn't, water-starved Western cities
will eventually knock at the door.
"Today the economics are not there to say we're
going to take all the water in the Great Lakes and ship
it to Phoenix and Vegas," said Todd Ambs, the water
division director of Wisconsin's Department of Natural
Resources. "But water's not getting cheaper. Twenty-five,
30, 40 years from now the economics are going to be different.
We've got to have a system in place to deal with that."
Fights over who owns and who deserves water have long
been a part of life in arid states such as California
and Nevada. But as the spread of exurbia has more than
consumed the savings of a generation's worth of technological
improvements such as low-flush toilets, even places not
perennially in danger of running dry have become jealous
of their water.
Akron, Ohio, had to ask for Great Lakes water in the
late 1990s. It received permission, but Lowell, Ind.,
was turned down.
In the past 25 years, ideas have been suggested to build
a slurry pipe that would send Great Lakes water to help
Wyoming mines and to build a 400-mile canal between the
Missouri River in South Dakota and Lake Superior. New
York City has raised the possibility of using Lake Erie
water to ease droughts.
The Great Lakes basin has "more and more demands
for water and certainly more and more development,"
Ambs said. "One of the reasons we're looking to have
a water management strategy is preparation for the future."
In 2001, the eight states that border the Great Lakes,
along with Ontario and Quebec, two Canadian provinces
within the lakes' watershed, pledged to develop a plan
to manage access to the lakes' water.
By the end of this year, that plan may include an agreement
-- requiring ratification by the states' governments --
that the water does not leave the Great Lakes basin except
under rare circumstances, based on the applicant's proximity
to the basin and whether the wastewater could be returned
to the Great Lakes system.
The basin's western boundary is a barely perceptible
rise in the land called the subcontinental divide; the
water west of the divide flows into the Mississippi River
system, and to the east it drains into the Great Lakes.
Waukesha's problem is that it is west of the line. Less
than five miles west, but it might as well be500 miles.
The draw-down of water from the deep aquifer was gradual
at first, accelerating in the late 1980s and throughout
the next 15 years. In recent measurements, the water level
had dropped about 600 feet. And the deeper the water source,
the more likely that it would be contaminated with too
much radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element.
The city water's radium content is now more than double
the acceptable level set by the Environmental Protection
Agency in 2000.
More than 50 Wisconsin communities, mostly in the southeastern
part of the state, and up to six times that many nationally
are in violation of the radium standard.
The Waukesha Water Utility is seeking 20 million gallons
a day to be piped from Lake Michigan. "Water is the
No. 1 need and the No. 1 issue for all Waukesha County
communities," said Carol J. Lombardi, the city's
mayor. The county has grown nearly 35 percent in the last
25 years to an estimated 377,000 people in 2004. Other
communities in Waukesha County also draw from the same
deep aquifer as the city.
If the city does not get access to Lake Michigan water,
it will face bills of perhaps tens of millions of dollars
to lower the radium levels by either cleaning up the existing
water or finding a new, uncontaminated source. But some
politicians in Milwaukee, where the population fell by
8.9 percent in the 1990s, are loath to sell the city's
Lake Michigan water to suburbs that have been draining
away their businesses and wealthier residents, and their
Waukesha County "supports widening roads to allow
for more transportation on the roadways to get more access
out to that community, rather than try to limit the sprawl
out there," said Michael Murphy, a Milwaukee alderman.
"Their solution to the problem is not the conservation
of their limited resources, but looking to Lake Michigan."
But Dan Duchniak, the general manager of the Waukesha
Water Utility, said a diversion of 20 million gallons
a day from Lake Michigan would be sufficient, and "70
million gallons a day would be enough to correct all the
problems of southeastern Wisconsin."
Chicago, Duchniak noted, is eligible under a Supreme
Court ruling to draw as much as 2.1 billion gallons a
day from Lake Michigan, even though the vast majority
of Chicago's land is outside the basin.
And, he said, Waukesha has a better claim on Lake Michigan
water than other cities outside of the subcontinental
The argument requires an excursion into hydrology. Once,
the deep aquifer the city tapped into was high enough
that it tended to flow into Lake Michigan. Now, so much
has been drawn from the aquifer that some geologists believe
the flow has reversed.
"Our argument is that we're different," said
Duchniak -- a claim his critics contest. "We're not
Las Vegas, we're not even Madison, Wis. We're using Great
Lakes water today. What we'd like to do is take Great
Lakes surface water rather than ground water."
"I want to take a straw sucking up ground water
and change it from being a vertical straw to a horizontal
straw," he said.
For critics like Emily Green, who oversees Great Lakes
issues for the Sierra Club, Duchniak's arguments are a
dodge. Her complaint, like that of Murphy, the Milwaukee
alderman, is the absence of conservation as the growth
spurt of the western exurbs, in towns like Oconomowoc,
"Yes, people need a place to live," Green said.
"But do they need McMansions on five-acre lots?"
Duchniak said his city is working on a conservation plan
that could reduce water use by 20 percent in the next
15 years. It is short on specifics, but hints at the likelihood
of price increases.
The city has already embarked on a $12 million project
to blend water from a shallow aquifer with the radium-laced
water from farther down.
But that will not solve the ultimate problem of Waukesha's
water supply. If the surface water from Lake Michigan
is not available, Duchniak said, the city will have to
spend $87 million bringing underground water in from areas
west of the city -- more than double what the Lake Michigan
water would cost.
"Have we done things wrong in the past?" he
asked. "Yes. Unequivocally, yes. But we have to move