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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.


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