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Public Speaks Out on Waukesha’s Proposal to Tap into Lake Michigan

S Bence
Crowd packed meeting room at first of three DNR public hearings.

Opinions dramatically conflicted, yet the first public hearing coordinated by the Wisconsin DNR ran smoothly and with civility at the jam-packed Carroll University.

Two more sessions will take place today: 1 pm in Milwaukee at the Zilber School of Public Health and at 5:30 pm in Racine at the downtown Masonic Center.

Monday evening, people shared their views on whether Waukesha should be allowed to divert Lake Michigan water.


The City says the lake is the only reasonable alternative to its radium-tainted aquifer system.

People started gathering well before the hearing.

A collection of environmental groups, called the Compact Implementation Coalition, held an indoor “tailgate party” of sorts to encourage people to come out for the hearing – and speak against Waukesha’s proposal.

The coalition’s key point is its belief that if the City of Waukesha sticks to its existing service area – and uses the latest technology – it would have ample safe water for its residents.

Lynn Preston lives in the Town of Mukwonago.

“I went to two presentation, the DNR and the other group (coalition). So I’m just looking at both sides and I really do think Waukesha could look at some other options,” Preston says.

The DNR kicked off the public hearing with an overview of Waukesha’s plan to take and return Lake Michigan water via Oak Creek, and to eventually accommodate more customers who live outside the city of Waukesha.

Federal officials ordered Waukesha to come up safe drinking water for its residents, by 2018, and the city has been working on its application for Lake Michigan water for years.

It would be the first to test the Great Lakes Compact. That’s the agreement all the states and Canadian provinces that border the lakes signed in 2008. It prohibits diversions of the water to outside the Great Lakes Basin, but allows possible exceptions, for which Waukesha hopes to qualify.

The city lies outside, but is located within Waukesha County, which straddles the basin.

The question that dominated last night’s hearing is whether Waukesha’s only reasonable alternative to its radium-tainted well water is Lake Michigan.

Credit S Bence
City of Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly was first in a string of elected officials to express support of the water diversion proposal.

Suzanne Kelley says yes. She’s president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

“The city has implemented a lot of conservation activities, our businesses participate in many conservation measures, but studies have proven, you can’t conserve your way out of this problem. This is an issue that has been studied at length for many, many years. All different kinds of options have been explored, but Lake Michigan water is really the only environmentally sustainable solution for the city,” Kelley says.

Laurie Longtine is equally vehement in her opposition.

She’s a member of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League.

“Because they have plenty of water if they would constrain themselves to the existing boundaries of the water service area currently. And the non-diversion solution that our organizations are promoting, that should have been the first step they looked at – treating the radium in the water,” Longtine says.

Peter Annin sat attentively taking notes throughout the hearing. He says he wasn’t there to comment.

He authored a book called “The Great Lakes Water Wars” and says application process will figure into the update he’s writing.

Annin calls the Waukesha case, no matter its outcome, a lesson in water sustainability.

A century ago people flocked to Waukesha by the trainload for the City’s plentiful mineral springs.

"100 years ago, Waukesha was a water destination, now they’re a water beggar, and this is this is not just about Waukesha….because Waukesha’s situation shows that this could happen to anyone, if you can run out of water in one of the water-richest regions of the world, where can’t you run out of water.,” Annin says.

The public can comment on Waukesha’s water diversion application by mail or online until August 28.

The DNR plans to publish its final decision in December.

If Wisconsin gives Waukesha the green light, the proposal moves on to the remaining seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that share the shores of the Great Lakes.

Conversation with Lake Effect's Mitch Teich about Monday hearing.

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.