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Great Lakes Article:

If Waukesha gets water, will Las Vegas be next?
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, 2005

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 tax base.

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 divide.

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, has accelerated.

"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 forward."

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