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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Transporting Lake Michigan Water To Waukesha Will Have Little Impact On Waterways, Officials Say

Susan Bence
Tuesday night, Waukesha officials attempted to ease concerns about the impacts of proposed drinking water infrastructure that would carry Lake Michigan water from Milwaukee and return it via the Root River.

You might assume Waukesha is installing massive pipes that will deliver Lake Michigan water to its residents. After all, the Great Lakes governors approved the city’s request three years ago. But Waukesha still needs the green light from Wisconsin environmental regulators.

READ: Waukesha Celebrates Great Lakes Compact Council Decision

Tuesday evening the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) invited public comment on how the Waukesha plan would impact streams and wetlands.

Waukesha spent nearly a decade applying, reapplying and adjusting its plan. The city had to demonstrate that tapping into Lake Michigan was the most sustainable option to replace its radium-tainted water supply.

The city is under court order to deliver a solution by 2023. Waukesha plans to pipe 8.2 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan. One pipeline will deliver the water from Milwaukee and another will return water — after it’s cleaned — to the Root River, which eventually flows into Lake Michigan in Racine.

READ: Milwaukee Replaces Oak Creek In Waukesha Water Deal

During construction, Waukesha’s new infrastructure will cross 22 navigable waterways, or streams, and the city says it will temporarily impact nearly 8 acres of wetlands.

DNR Integration Services Section Chief Callan says his agency is still scrutinizing whether during pipeline construction, Waukesha can impact wetlands temporarily, and just how temporary that is.

“Is it just three weeks during construction? Or will it be something where the impact is in a high quality wooded area where it won’t be a high quality woodland area even with that temporary impact for many years. We have to figure that out,” Callan says.

Inside the Carroll University auditorium, no more than 40 people gathered, yet each person who stepped up to the microphone expressed concern.

Credit Susan Bence
Eric Stephens (right) shares concerns with Waukesha Water Utility Director Dan Duchniak (center) about pipeline slated to be laid beyond his backyard.

Cheryl Nenn, with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, told the DNR panel her list of concerns was too long to condense into a few minutes. For one, Nenn dismisses the notion that a wetland can be temporarily impacted.

“We saw that there is significant amount of wooded wetlands that are gonna be converted to emergent marsh. Emergent marshes may never become wooded wetlands again because what we’ve seen in other projects that just doesn’t happen. They become dominated by invasive species and are of a lesser quality than what was taken out in the first place,” Nenn says.

Eric Stephens says he didn’t realize his family lived along the proposed return pipeline until he got a letter telling him so.

“My biggest concern would be the time the construction would go on. We've lived along Martin Road for 22 years ... it does flood. It does worry us that once you open it, it’s not virgin dirt anymore. You’re putting something back that might not stay that way just because of water rush,” Stephens says.

The term "precedent setting” has followed Waukesha throughout its application. The city was allowed to apply to purchase Lake Michigan water under a closely-scrutinized clause of the 2008 Great Lakes Compact. It allows communities located in counties straddling the basin to apply for a diversion.

Credit Great Water Alliance
A map of Waukesha's preferred routes for the water pipelines.

Waukesha resident Laurie Longtine doesn’t think the city’s application meets compact criteria.

“All you have to do is look at one of the maps. The one that Waukesha wants is the longest route. From common sense, that’s going to impact more wetlands, cross more streams, create more construction runoff [and] other opportunities for pollution to get into our waterways,” Longtine says.

Dan Duchniak, Waukesha’s water utility director, dismisses Longtine’s assessment.

“This just happens to be the best route that meets all of the criteria. I think there were something like 20 criteria that we looked at, and this ultimately was the best route that caused the least amount of impacts for the return flow and the water supply,” Duchniak says.

Public comment on Waukesha’s proposed waterways and wetlands permit is open until Sept. 19.

Duchniak says Waukesha will need another environmental permit – for the waste water it will treat and discharge into the Root River. “Which we anticipate will be out within the next week or so,” Duchniak says.

That process gives the public another opportunity to share their views on Waukesha’s ongoing process of securing a sustainable, safe source of drinking water for its residents.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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