Editorial: Beware the water precedent
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted August 24, 2005
The aquifer argument furthered by Waukesha on Monday in
hopes of tapping into Lake Michigan surface water has
a compelling reasonableness to it. It still, however,
leaves one basic impediment unresolved. Moreover, the
science underlying the argument is apparently in dispute.
First the basic impediment. No Great Lakes water should
leave the basin unless it can be replenished. This has
been a mainstay of lake policy for a while now. Since
Waukesha is outside the surface-water basin, it shouldn't
get any surface water unless it can return it, instead
of letting it flow eventually into the Mississippi River
via the Fox River.
(Waukesha says it cannot send the surface water it gets
back to the lake without damaging the Fox River and the
Vernon Marsh, both of which rely on the wastewater flow).
But basically, Waukesha's argument is that it has depleted
its groundwater aquifer so much - violating federal standards
for safe water in the process - that it is no longer a
tributary to the Great Lakes. Instead, a reverse flow,
from the lake to the aquifer, has been under way, said
Dan Duchniak, manager of the Waukesha Water Utility.
So Waukesha is asking that the Great Lakes Council of
Governors' draft agreement on rehabilitating and preserving
the lakes be changed to regulate the lakes' groundwater
as well as its surface waters. In other words, if the
Great Lakes' governors acknowledge that some communities
- outside the lakes' surface water basin but inside its
groundwater basin - are already using "lake"
water, albeit from underground, it's but a small leap
to then reason that these communities are entitled to
the surface water. Whether it's underground or above,
it's all one body of water.
As we said, it's an argument with an aura of reasonableness.
But, unfortunately, one also in need of more details,
even if Waukesha does usefully pledge to cap its usage
at 20 million gallons daily and to divert any water it
can back to the lake if it should want to up its allotment
in the future.
Among those who dispute Waukesha's facts is Doug Cherkauer,
a professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,
longtime proponent of better water management and member
of a Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission
water study committee.
He argues that the water flowing into Waukesha's aquifer
isn't from the Great Lakes at all but from other storage
in the deep aquifer.
The problem then in allowing Great Lakes water to flow
out of the surface water basin would still be replenishment.
But even if the water flowing into Waukesha's aquifer
were from Lake Michigan, the answer isn't more depletion
from the lake. It's to control the depletion.
Waukesha argues that shifting to surface water will allow
it to shut down its wells and that would then allow the
aquifer to be replenished so that it might one day become
a tributary again. Duchniak cites figures of nine years
for 50% replenishment.
But beyond the science, our concern is about precedent.
Giving Waukesha what it wants would have negligible effect
on Lake Michigan. But it would not be the only community
wanting the water, and once that magic barrier is broken,
who's next. Madison? Chicago suburbs? Cities in the Great
Plains and beyond?
First, let's nail down the science beyond dispute. Until
then, be skeptical. Cherkauer suggests at least three
options for water-hungry Waukesha that don't include siphoning
from Lake Michigan. None would be cheap or risk free.
But neither would setting the precedent of allowing lake
water from the basin. By all means, keep the discussion
going, but tread very carefully here.