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Drinking water from Lake Michigan has started to flow to customers in Waukesha

Reservoirs (water tanks) outside Waukesha Booster Station.
Chuck Quirmbach
Reservoirs (a water tower and water tank) outside the new Waukesha Water Utility Booster Station on the city's east side.

It's been 30 years or more since Milwaukee newspapers were running front page headlines about a possible pipeline to carry Lake Michigan water to Waukesha. The western suburb was already having problems with its groundwater supply.

But the idea pretty much went dormant for years. Then, Waukesha Water Utility general manager Dan Duchniak says in the early 2000s it became his longtime job focus.

Dan Duchniak at booster station pipe coming in from Lake Michigan.
Chuck Quirmbach
Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak stands next to the booster station pipe coming in from Lake Michigan.

"The first water supply study at the end of 2002. And I started in January of 2003. I've been working on this project pretty much ever since," says Duchniak.

The project by 2016 won the approval of the all the Great Lakes states and provinces, under an agreement called the Great Lakes Compact that seeks to regulate water withdrawals outside the Great Lakes Basin.

Waukesha also cut a deal to buy water from the City of Milwaukee, shortening the distance lake water had to be sent into supply pipes laid in western Milwaukee County and eastern Waukesha County over the last few years.

In a basement room at a Waukesha booster or pumping station you can hear the water where a 36-inch-diameter pipe carries in Lake Michigan water. Then the water moves to other pipes.

"So, the water goes through these walls, and out to the two reservoirs and it comes back through that front larger pipe. Then you see the darker blue pipes. That's water that goes out to the city of Waukesha," Duchniak explains.

Pipe heading to customers.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Water Utility's Duchniak stands next to the water pipe carrying water to Waukesha customers.

The transition to lake water is going slowly, as designed. By last night, an online map showed only about the eastern fifth of the city had the new service. Duchniak says he wants to make sure people have time to get used to what he says should be a temporary rust color and chlorine smell to the water. People can disconnect water softeners that are likely no longer needed and ask doctors about modifying kidney dialysis machines.

The change to lake water, additional sewage treatment after the water is used, and piping it back to Lake Michigan via the Root River through Racine will be costly.

In a statement to WUWM, Racine Mayor Cory Mason said, “We did our best to fight this bad deal for Racine for the past decade. I remain unconvinced that Waukesha discharging their wastewater into the Root River, which runs through our diverse community, will somehow do no harm.”

Already, typical Waukesha customers are paying about $15 more per month. Tack on another $15-$18 per month later next year.

Duchniak defends the price increases.

"We have a sustainable water supply for generations to come. This is a generational solution. It's not something that's a Band-Aid, which is what we would have put on and spent the same amount of money," Duchniak says.

Just a mile or so from the booster station on Waukesha's southeast side, homeowner John Gottwald says he can handle the price hike. He does have a half-cup of skepticism. "I don't know. I think whenever you try something new and large, there can be little minute problems along the way, and I assume there might be some of those with this project," he says.

But if, as Gottwald hopes, any problems turn out to be small and short-term, the water diversion to Waukesha will likely be highlighted as showing the Great Lakes Compact works.

Molly Flanagan of the Alliance for the Great Lakes says she hopes other communities in counties that straddle the basin, as is the city of Waukesha, only look at the lakes as a last resort for drinking water.

Pump room at Waukesha Water Utility Booster Station.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Pump Room at the Waukesha Water Utility Booster Station.

"The compact required that before a community can request diversion of water, that they look at all the other alternatives. And so, there be other surface water alternatives like rivers. There may be some sort of combining of groundwater and surface water that could be used," says Molly.

But recently, Chicago agreed to sell some of the Lake Michigan water it has long received to the city of Joliet, which is out of the Great Lakes Basin. Apparently it's legal, under language written into the Great Lakes Compact to get Illinois to sign on.

So, while Waukesha residents prepare to sip lake water their local officials went through decades of work to obtain, some Great Lakes advocates are warning about the power of political pressure to suddenly stick another, bigger straw into that huge supply of fresh water.

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