Milwaukee-area Community Seeks to Tap Lake Michigan for Drinking Water

While Waukesha’s request will be the first major test of the Great Lakes Compact, the county supervisor opposes the plan.

Community Seeks To Tap Lake Michigan for WaterThe city of Waukesha, Wisconsin will apply for permission from eight Great Lakes states to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan instead of contaminated deep-water wells.

The application will be the first major test of a 2008 compact designed to protect the lakes from large diversions of water. The city must win approval from every Great Lakes state before being able to buy water from Milwaukee or another municipal supplier. The plan must also win approval from state regulators.

Waukesha gets most of its water from deep wells contaminated with naturally occurring radium and salt, and the water needs to be treated to meet federal drinking water standards. After its use and treatment, the water is pumped into the Fox River, where it flows into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico.

But the city needs to find a cleaner water supply by 2018 under a state court order.

The Waukesha Common Council voted April 8 to apply for access to Lake Michigan water under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a 2008 agreement to protect the lakes from large-scale water diversions. The compact requires approval from the governors of all the states that surround the lakes—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—for any withdrawals from communities that fall outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha sits 14 miles north from Lake Michigan’s shore, but falls within the Mississippi River basin.

The city’s plan for tapping into Lake Michigan involves building a series of pipelines to pump water from the lake and return treated water to the lake via local steams and rivers. The compact requires that water diverted from the Great Lakes be returned to the lakes.

The plan would cost an estimated $164 million, which is less expensive than continuing to pump and treat the city’s water from deep wells or obtaining water from a combination of deep and shallow wells.

Relying on deep wells would become increasingly costly due to dropping groundwater levels and the higher cost of pumping water from greater depths, the city argues. Water from deeper in the aquifer also has higher levels of radium and salt, which would lead to increasing treatment costs. Switching to shallow wells would drain water from local rivers, streams and wetlands, according to a city-commissioned study.

Waukesha’s plan has drawn opposition from the Milwaukee County supervisor, John Weishan Jr., who complained that it could contaminate the local waterways that would be used to return water to the lake. Weishan is sponsoring a resolution to block the plan.

Weishan’s resolution will be considered April 13 at the next meeting of the county’s Parks, Energy & Environment Committee. If approved by the committee, the county’s board of supervisors could vote on the resolution April 22, which is also the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

At Waukesha’s request, the cities of Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine have sent letters indicating their willingness to consider selling water to the city, should its application be approved by the Great Lakes states.

Sources: Waukesha Draft Application for Lake Michigan Water supply (PDF), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin Business News

Read more of Circle of Blue’s reporting on Waukesha’s water woes here.

4 replies
  1. chemguy says:

    Why doesn’t it also have to be approved by the Canadian government, which I beleive is also a signatory to this agreement? Personally, I think it would be a great mistake, and against the principle of this agreement to allow this water transfer. The water needs to stay in the Great Lakes Basin – period.

  2. Phil says:

    Is this a joke obviously there will be more cities and counties to come forward looking for this same water source in due time. Where and when would it then become important to stop tappig into it and others are right in saying it is not just an American decision it’s a Canadian one as well

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