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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Concerns Remain Even After DNR Signals Final Approval Allowing Waukesha To Tap Into Lake Michigan

Swinging pipe to the trench
Crew at work installing return flow pipeline in Franklin, Wisconsin. In all, 35 miles of pipes will convey water to Waukesha and return it to Lake Michigan.

The city of Waukesha got official news Wednesday that it can pipe Lake Michigan water to residents, replacing their radium-tainted supply.

Almost exactly five years ago, Waukesha celebrated when all eight Great Lakes governors approved the community’s request, but protocol wasn’t complete until the Wisconsin DNR signed off on the plan Wednesday.

READ Waukesha Celebrate Great Lakes Compact Council Decision

Thirty-five miles of pipeline will carry Lake Michigan water from Milwaukee to Waukesha and, after use and treatment, back to the Great Lake.

Workers already have laid 30% of the pipes, according to Waukesha water utility general manager Dan Duchniak. He says on any given day, up to 14 crews are working on the project.

READ: Construction Begins On Water Pipeline To Waukesha And Return Flow to Lake Michigan

“We have crews all over the place in communities we’re going through, whether it’s New Berlin, West Allis, Greenfield, Muskego or Franklin. They’re working on both pipelines,” Duchniak explains.

The city of Waukesha began construction, anticipating final approval from the DNR. So the agency’s announcement Wednesday came as no surprise to Duchniak.

“What happened was they went to the compact council in the beginning of June and in their report they let the compact council know that we had met all of the requirements and that we they were going to be issuing the permit. We worked through some final details of the permits and we knew it was going be issued by the end of the month,” he says.

The compact council’s official name is the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council. It’s an outgrowth of the Great Lakes Compact, the 2008 agreement designed to manage and protect the resource; in particular, by banning the diversion of water outside the basin.

The city of Waukesha requested Great Lakes water because the city’s wells are contaminated with radium. Waukesha was allowed to apply because it’s in a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin.

Waukesha’s long and expensive application process began in 2010.

Duchniak says even after the Great Lakes governors gave Waukesha the green light, the city had to apply for more than 80 permits.

“And the finish line will be when we turn on those pumps and we anticipate that will be September of 2023. You say, it’s still two years away, but we’re on the home stretch to once and for all address the public health and safety that we have here in Waukesha,” he says.

Duchniak says on any given day 14 crews are installing water diversion infrastructure.

While Duchniak celebrates the project’s home stretch, others still have questions.

“We thought there would be another public comment opportunity [before] the final approval came out, so I was little surprised to see this,” says Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

She says her organization and others questioned whether Waukesha should be granted a diversion under the Great Lakes Compact and that concern hasn’t disappeared.

“I think we’re all dedicated to ensuring the compact is implemented as strongly and effectively as possible. And I think that at this point we need to just make sure all of the rules are being followed and essentially that Waukesha is holding up to its commitment it made to the Great Lakes states and the provinces about how they’re going to do this diversion and make it’s being done in a way that’s protecting the natural resources,” she says.

Nenn is worried about the path used water will follow on its return to Lake Michigan. Waukesha will treat the water, then pipe it to the Root River, which flows into the lake in Racine. She worries about the potential impact on the river’s health.

"It’s something we’ll have to closely monitor going forward, I think especially when you have really low water times in the summer when we haven’t had a lot of rain and there’s not a lot of water in the river, it seems like the Root River will become what’s called an effluent-dominated stream, meaning that a lot of the flow at certain times of the year could be from that treated water.” Nenn continues, “So at the end of the day I think there’s going to be very significant impacts on the water quality.”

Waukesha water utility general manager Dan Duchniak insists the city will be meeting all water quality requirements. Everything related to the diversion, he says, will be folded into an annual report the compact council can review at any time.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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