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How Would Ecosystems Downstream Fare if Waukesha Buys Lake Michigan Water?

S Bence
Right now, Waukesha's treated wastewater makes it way along the Fox River, through the city and downstream through wetland areas and along communities on its path toward the Mississippi River.

Waukesha hopes to pump in 10 million gallons a day from Oak Creek’s utility, then treat and return the water to Lake Michigan via the Root River.

The city says it’s the best way to solve its existing underground source that it’s becoming more tainted with cancer-causing radium.

Water utility manager Dan Duchniak says the $200 million proposal a responsible investment. “(There are) no environmental impacts associated with it. Actually there are environmental benefits associated with it. The decision is clear – Lake Michigan is the only reasonable alternative for the City of Waukesha,” he says.

All along, the city has drawn water from wells and then releases treated water into the Fox River. This river a small piece of a massive basin that funnels water from a 13-state area down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

Jim Drought is a hydrologist hired by a consortium of environmental groups to review Waukesha’s plan. “We’re looking at the Fox River as we’re speaking and a significant portion of its base flow comes from treated effluent from the City of Waukesha,” he says.

Drought believes agencies should consider the impact the city’s plan could have – not just in the Great Lakes basin, but downstream along the Fox River.

“That water in the Fox River is used for drinking water supply for communities downstream in southeastern Wisconsin and northeast Illinois,” Drought says.

Drought says if Waukesha transitions its used water to the Root River, the Fox's flow could drop significantly.

“Particularly during the summer months and the winter months when we typically experience our lowest periods of base flow of streams. And there’s also downstream wetlands and surface water features that are in communication with the Fox River. And by diverting the base flow away from the Fox River some of those wetlands and surface water features could be adversely affected as well,” he says.

One of those features is Vernon Marsh. The Fox River snakes through the 46-hundred watery acres, touted for their wildlife habitat and the oasis they provide for waterfowl.

Drought says scientists don’t fully understand the complex hydrology of the wetlands and flowages.

“The Vernon Marsh may be a system that feeds the Fox River and at certain times of the year may also be fed by the Fox River. And it really requires additional study to evaluate that,” he says.

Drought believes the DNR needs to dig deeper into what might be left behind as it considers perhaps the first diversion of water from the Great Lakes, since eight states and two Canadian provinces signed a compact in 2008 to protect the massive watershed.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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