of 2 cities reveals water's impact
By Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Michael Pollocoff remembers what the water was like two
decades ago, before Pleasant Prairie bloomed into one
of Wisconsin's fastest growing communities.
"It looked like orange Kool-Aid and smelled like
rotten eggs," says Pollocoff, the village manager.
Like other communities with declining groundwater supplies,
Pleasant Prairie struggled with radium in its municipal
wells. Water bills would go out with warnings about carcinogens,
and Pollocoff would field calls from exasperated residents.
"Do you expect me to pay for this?"
Yes, he did.
"Do you expect me to drink it?"
No, he didn't.
The solution seemed easy. Six feet from a Pleasant Prairie
water main lay a water main from the city of Kenosha and
a pipeline to Lake Michigan. In 1988, the two communities
brokered a deal. Kenosha got 3 square miles of land and,
for the first time, an important access point to I-94;
Pleasant Prairie got its link to fresh lake water.
But the village could not turn the spigot on.
Water cannot be taken outside the Great Lakes basin without
the approval of the eight Great Lakes states' governors,
and as close as it is to the shoreline, about half of
Pleasant Prairie actually is outside the basin. The governors
had never approved a diversion from one of the Great Lakes,
but most were willing to go along. The governor from Michigan,
John Engler, was the primary stumbling block.
To push its point, Pleasant Prairie paid $30,000 to a
lobbyist in Lansing to tell its story. Soon thereafter,
in September 1989, a picture of Pollocoff holding a bottle
of rusty water appeared on the front page of the Detroit
Free Press. Another picture showed residents being forced
to fill up water bottles from a local artesian well.
Two months later, Michigan broke the logjam, sending
a letter to Wisconsin officials saying it would not object
to letting Pleasant Prairie turn on the Lake Michigan
faucet. The decision was one of the most important in
the history of Pleasant Prairie, transforming the village
from cropland and faded barns to subdivisions, retail
outlets and crisp industrial buildings.
Until then, the village had not been able to capitalize
on its proximity to Chicago. Water made the difference.
Pleasant Prairie is a classic example of the power and
politics of Great Lakes water, and the reason there is
growing concern about the way it is managed.
The flip side
What happens when water access is denied
Lowell, Ind., is also a classic example, but for the opposite
For years, this little town just beyond the boundary
of the Great Lakes basin struggled with excessive levels
of naturally occurring fluoride, making its water unsafe
to drink. Like Pleasant Prairie, it petitioned the Great
Lakes governors to allow a hookup to Lake Michigan water.
And like Pleasant Prairie, the big holdup was Michigan,
again under then-Gov. Engler.
Unlike Pleasant Prairie, Lowell was refused permission,
and local officials are still steamed.
"We lost Lake Michigan water because of the capriciousness
of one man, which I think is government at its worst,"
says David Gard, president of the Lowell Town Council.
" . . . We were in a desperate situation, and they
slammed the door on us."
Michigan has traditionally taken a hard line on diversions
because it has no worries; the entire state is within
the basin. In the past, the Michigan Department of Natural
Resources has said it opposes diversions "supporting
growth and expansion in an area unable to provide its
own public water supply," according to documents.
These days, century-old brick buildings line Lowell's
main street, giving the town a bit of a Norman Rockwell
feel. But if he were alive today and painting Lowell,
Rockwell might draw a town elder with a perplexed expression,
as if thinking: "Where's everyone going?"
Cars and trucks lumber along Commercial Ave., without
stopping en route to I-65 and U.S. Highway 41 - the two
main highways in the area. There's new commercial development
beyond the edge of town. New homes and subdivisions are
popping up as sprawl from Chicago and other northern Indiana
communities moves southward.
Lowell has missed out.
After it was denied Lake Michigan water in 1992, the
community was forced to spend nearly $5 million to drill
new wells and build a new municipal water system. The
first six wells did not produce enough water to provide
an adequate reserve.
Town officials ended up ignoring the recommendations
of two hydrologists, took the advice of a local farmer
instead and drilled a deep well on the outskirts of town.
They struck water. Supplies today are acceptable, officials
Like many communities, Lowell wants to grow, and it must
annex surrounding land to do so. But water is the key
to making everything else work. Council President Gard
says his community will eventually ask the governors again
for permission to use Lake Michigan water.
"We need to bring some ground into town," Gard
says. "Will our well field support it? I don't know.
But Lake Michigan would have been a clear and enduring
answer for us."
Concern grows about mining Great Lakes
With their ocean-like grandeur, the Great Lakes may seem
limitless. Even today, as lake levels have fallen close
to historic lows, the total impact from users of the five
lakes can be measured in a few inches.
But despite the lakes' immensity, agencies that protect
them claim that little of the water can be wasted. Only
1% of the water is renewed annually by rain, runoff and
the huge quantities that trickle in from neighboring groundwater,
according to the Great Lakes Commission, a U.S.-Canadian
agency devoted to resource issues.
There is concern that the lakes could be mined far beyond
their current levels, and that concern is growing as fresh
water becomes perhaps the most critical resource of the
Amid this backdrop, the political strength of the Great
Lakes states is waning. With congressional power shifting
to the Sun Belt states, "we fear Congress may well
come in and impose something on us," says Todd Ambs,
administrator of the water division at the Wisconsin Department
of Natural Resources and a staff representative on the
Council of Great Lakes Governors. "If it's left up
to them, we are, shall we say, somewhat skeptical the
rest of Congress is interested in protecting Great Lakes
Such apprehension percolates across the region.
"You take all of these insecurities, plus the political
problems that are inherent in water, and you see why people
are worrying about the lakes today," says George
Kuper, president and chief executive officer of the Council
of Great Lakes Industries, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization
that represents big water users.
People have long wanted to use the Great Lakes, which
account for about 20% of the world's freshwater supply,
to solve their water problems. One time it was a proposal
to ship water to Asia in tankers; another time it was
a suggestion to pipe water to the Great Plains.
"People look at these great bodies of water and
say, 'It's ridiculous to say we can't use more of it,'
" says Peter Gleick, an Oakland, Calif.-based water
policy expert and co-founder of the Pacific Institute,
a non-profit center that focuses on the environment and
sustainable development. "I think it is a legitimate
fear. I think it's perfectly appropriate for the Great
Lakes community to worry about outsiders wanting to take
Great Lakes water."
Governors, premiers work on new rules
Because they border Canada, the Great Lakes have been
governed by international treaties and laws that date
back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
In 1985, in reaction to a new round of proposals to pull
water from the lakes, the eight Great Lakes governors
and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec (which is included
because the St. Lawrence Seaway is considered part of
the system) signed the Great Lakes Charter, which outlined
a series of principles to collectively manage the lakes.
A year later Congress stepped in and passed the Water
Resources Development Act. The law required the governors
of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana,
Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York to approve any water diversion
outside the Great Lakes basin.
The basin marks all land in which water eventually flows
back to the lakes. It twists and swerves, sometimes reaching
inland for hundreds of miles. Other times, such as the
stretch from Milwaukee to Chicago and into northern Indiana,
it becomes a mere ribbon around the water itself, stretching
no farther than a few miles from the shore.
In 1998, a business start-up called the Nova Group, based
in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, persuaded Ontario officials
to approve a request to use Lake Superior to fill up water
tankers bound for Asia. The deal collapsed, but the United
States would have been powerless to stop it because of
"That sent off alarm bells across the Great Lakes
states," says Jeff Edstrom, a Chicago-based consultant
and former staff member of the Council of Great Lakes
In addition, water law experts advised the governors
in 1999 that their authority could be unconstitutional
because states typically can't impose limits on the interstate
movement of goods. In addition, their veto authority over
water deals might violate international trade agreements.
"Then there was declining lake levels and growing
concerns about climate change, and all of a sudden you
had a lot of people who said this is not a resource that
we can take for granted," says Sam Speck, director
of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and chairman
of the Great Lakes Commission.
All of these events prompted the governors and premiers
to meet in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in June 2001 and pledge
to find new rules for dealing with water management.
Calling themselves "Annex 2001," they set a
deadline of June 2004.
A working group of officials representing the governors
and premiers is expected to unveil a draft of new protections
early next year.
The guiding tenet: Water taken out of the basin would
have to be cleaned and returned so there is no net loss
to the lakes. For the very largest of diversions, water
would have to be returned at a higher quality than usual
If water could not be returned, users would have to pay
for projects, such as restoration of habitat or wetlands
that would benefit the lakes.
States could be delegated the responsibility to decide
small diversions, such as Pleasant Prairie, with some
The group is also working on a proposal that for the
first time ever might force communities to adopt conservation
measures if they want more water from the lakes than they
Annex 2001 will eventually have to go before Congress
and state legislatures, as well as the provincial legislatures
and the Canadian Parliament. Experts believe it could
overcome the legal problems while protecting the lakes
from large-scale diversions.
A thirsty country
Big diversions unlikely, but can't be ruled out
The Great Lakes have long been the target of grandiose
In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied
whether the Great Lakes could help the Great Plains by
replenishing declining water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer,
the vast supply of groundwater stretching from Texas to
In 1981, mining interests proposed a $2.1 billion pipeline
that would use Lake Superior water to transport coal slurry
from Wyoming and Montana back to the Midwest.
And in 1988, drought conditions prompted Gov. James Thompson
of Illinois to call for diverting water from the Great
Lakes to raise water levels on the Mississippi River and
relieve stalled barge traffic.
As projects surfaced, so did politicians to denounce
"As far as I'm concerned, the only water we should
sell is that which goes out in cans mixed with malt, hops
and barley," Gov. Lee S. Dreyfus joked two decades
With new protections in the works, will some faraway
place with water troubles still want to tap the Great
High energy costs to pump water over long distances,
and bitter battles with property owners along a project's
path would present major obstacles.
"The era of big water transfer projects is coming
to an end because we are finally beginning to understand
the true costs of those projects," says water expert
But Gleick and others agree that the Great Lakes states
need to make sure they are protecting the big waters.
"What happens if there are major changes in the
economy?" asks Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator for
Great Lakes United, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based environmental
group. "Water at the moment is cheap. But will it
be that way in the future? Who knows what people will
consider the smart thing to do in the future?"
Pleasant Prairie's growth started with water
Rick Anderson knows all too well the value of water, and
what it means to be inside or outside the basin.
For years, he and many of his neighbors quietly endured
foul-smelling water, and sometimes no water at all.
He lives in an affluent subdivision south of Gary, Ind.,
and from his lawn he could almost drive a golf ball into
a big tree-lined pond. But the pastoral setting belied
the troubles that lurked underground.
Anderson built his home in 1995 and dug 12 wells trying
to find decent water. He bought $20 water filters and
went through them like toilet paper. He turned to a 90-year-old
water witch, who claims he can find water, with no success.
But when neighbors finally did some research, they discovered
something better than a rich vein of groundwater to solve
their problems. The subdivision was tucked a half-mile
inside the Great Lakes basin and was able to connect to
Lake Michigan through the local water utility.
"You have no idea how fortunate we felt," Anderson
Great Lakes water also certainly was the answer for Pleasant
The community's population, which had remained virtually
unchanged from 1980 to 1990, jumped 34% to 16,136 in 2000,
making it one of the fastest growing communities in Wisconsin.
Property values zoomed during the 1990s, as well, skyrocketing
from $300 million to $1.6 billion.
LakeView Corporate Park - 45 minutes from O'Hare International
Airport - broke ground shortly after the village got water
and helped jump-start the boom. The 2,100-acre business
park is assessed at $57 million; it now draws more than
30,000 workers every business day. Main St. is not a quaint
village center, but a sprawling 65-store outlet mall just
off I-94 that sells everything from Versace fashions to
Waterford crystal to Maidenform bras.
The village built an $11 million community center in
2000 - the LakeView Recplex - that lies on the shore of
Lake Andrea, an artificial lake that used to be a gravel
Many of the subdivisions are new, too. In the last decade,
Pleasant Prairie became a magnet for Illinois homeowners
- two-thirds of all new homes built in the first half
of the 1990s were purchased by Illinois residents, according
to the village.
New subdivisions and more traffic may not strike some
as progress. But no one can argue that this would have
happened without Lake Michigan water.
"The essential elements of economic development
are sewer, water and electricity," Pollocoff says.
"If you miss any of those, you're done."