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Can Waukesha Purchase Lake Michigan Water? Months of Scrutiny Lie Ahead


Waukesha's proposal to purchase Lake Michigan water is now open for public review. The City held the first of four public meetings Thursday.

The deep water aquifer on which the City has relied is not just overtaxed; concentrations of cancer-causing radium have been found at alarming levels in the water. So Waukesha is under court order to come up with a solution by the summer of 2018.

In May of 2010 the city submitted its first application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – with a proposal to purchase and use water from the City of Milwaukee. But negotiations over the idea failed, and Waukesha now aims to purchase water from Oak Creek and return it via the Root River.

That plan was the subject of a public meeting last night (Thursday) at Carroll University in Waukesha. City officials presented the plan and citizens had the chance to weigh in and ask questions.

The scene seemed extremely civilized and almost sedate.

Eighty people found spots on neatly organized red chairs or milled around peering at display boards that lined the perimeter of the auditorium. City employees stood on the ready to explain everything from the City of Waukesha’s existing water conservation program to the merits of its diversion and return plan.

Dan Duchniak conducted the presentation He is general manager of Waukesha’s water utility and walked through why the proposal to purchase Lake Michigan water was the right solution for the city.

"Initially 14 different alternatives were considered. We looked at the Fox River, we looked at the Rock River, we looked at damming up the rivers; we looked at the quarries and the springs and at different lakes . We looked at the different groundwater alternatives. And we looked at wastewater reuse, After the initial screening for quality and environmental and regulatory issues, we screened those down."

Duchniak says the six most promising alternatives received in-depth studied. All, he said, fell short of the long-term sustainable solution bar.

Mike DuPont agrees. He says he looks at the problem through the lens of a 30-year Waukesha resident as well as a civil engineer. DuPont says diversion is the right call.

"I do. It’s a sustainable solution and I just don’t see that any of the other options that they presented are realistic. They’re very expensive and I think it’s a good solution."

Laurie Longtine doesn’t share DuPont’s conviction. She’s a member of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League and has a list of concerns about the city’s proposed water solution, beginning with the structure of this meeting. Residents didn’t step forward and ask questions, instead submitted them in writing

"I find the format of these meetings troublesome because our organization, our coalition has asked for an open format where citizens can ask questions and hear each other ask questions and hear the answers all together. And not only did we have only 20 minutes of that, but there was really no give and take, if there was a followup question or the reader of the question did not understand the question as it was written."

Jared San Miguel came to soak up as much information as possible. This was the first public meeting he’d attended and says he’s intensely interested. He’s finishing an undergrad degree in environmental science at Carroll University.

Sanmiguel believes no matter what – Waukesha’s water solution will come with significant environmental impacts.

"People that give presentations like this that are kind of behind the project tend to make it sound a little better than it might be. A lot of their posters say there isn’t going to be no impact to the environment or to the soils or anything like that. But the construction effort that it would take to build these pipelines and the service centers and moving all of that soil and the compaction of the other soil is going to have significant impacts."

Water utility manager Dan Duchniak stands firmly behind Waukesha’s plan.

"Being able to get to that point where you’re able to recycle and reuse water and have no impact on the lake; have minimum disruption to the wetland areas versus having impacts on 4000 acres of wetlands, impacting 1600 wells. I think it’s a pretty easy decision for the City of Waukesha. Now we can only hope that because of all the efforts that we put in, the 3,000 pages of application that we have, that it will move towards an approval and ultimately solidify the Compact and protecting the Great Lakes."

Peter McAvoy believes Waukesha’s plan does not meet Great Lakes Compact standards. He’s part of a collection of conservation and environmental organizations called the Compact Implementation Coalition

"Our coalition and I think most of the Great Lakes states when they adopted the Compact felt that diversions – if they’re going to occur – should only occur under very limited circumstances and it would be the last resort for a community instead of it’s more of a convenience."

Representatives from the Department of Natural Resources were on hand to explain its role in evaluating Waukesha’s application.

McAvoy says he’s counting on the agency to test its soundness.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.