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Waukesha Moving Forward with Plans to Divert Lake Michigan Water

The City of Waukesha hopes to draw from Lake Michigan to provide residents with clean reliable water.

Waukesha is one step closer in its quest to obtain Lake Michigan water.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin DNR gave preliminary approval to the city’s plan. Waukesha’s underground source of water is dwindling and increasingly contaminated with radium, an element linked to cancer. So the city is under a federal order to take action. The final decision about getting water from Lake Michigan does not rest with the DNR.

Waukesha is located only about 20 miles from Lake Michigan, but the city lies outside the Great Lakes basin. That means the water Waukesha uses does not naturally flow back to the lake. So in order to obtain Lake Michigan water, the city would need the permission of all the states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes. In 2008, they signed the Great Lakes Compact. David Naftzger represents the Council of Great Lakes Governors. He says the compact sets rules for communities interested in diverting the water.

“Demonstrating that there’s no reasonable water supply alternative from the watershed in which the community resides. There has to be return of water after use to the Great Lakes basin. There has to be inclusion of water conservation and efficiency measures all to ensure that any use of Great Lakes water would be sustainable,” Naftzger says.  

Any decision the Great Lakes Compact members make is legally binding under state and federal law. The next step Waukesha needs is final DNR approval. It’s expected in December.

Waukesha’s proposal is to bring in water from Lake Michigan by partnering with Oak Creek. Waukesha would build a pump station and the necessary piping, and then return the water it uses to Lake Michigan, via the Root River.

Initially, Waukesha wanted to partner with Milwaukee’s water utility, but city officials here wanted assurances that Waukesha would not someday increase the area it supplies and the return route was unacceptable. It would have used the Underwood Creek, which has historically experienced flooding, during heavy rains.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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