Standing close to the spot where Waukesha’s proposed pipe would discharge treated water, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee biologist Tim Ehlinger worries about the impact it could have on the Root River.
“The Root is a fabulous treasure. I think what’s gorgeous about it down here is you’ve got all this riparian wetland and wooded wetland that floods frequently and it provides for the life of the amphibians and the birds and the water quality,” he says.
Ehlinger says if Waukesha’s plan is okayed, routine wastewater treatment takes care of chemicals such as phosphorus and nitrogen, but the process doesn’t remove everything. “There are other things, pharmaceuticals, other kinds of chemicals that aren’t removed during the treatment process currently,” he says.
Ehlinger says scientists are learning more about the impacts pharmaceuticals and other pathogens have on aquatic and potentially human life, but for now, the substances aren’t monitored or regulated.
He says Waukesha’s draft environmental impact statement briefly mentions the issue. “The EIS basically has one sentence that says there are some studies that indicate this may be a problem, but there is not enough known,” Ehlinger says.
He’s especially concerned about pharmaceuticals in the effluent when the Root’s flow naturally tends to run low, such as in the summer.
“Right now, I looked at it this morning and I think the flow is 2 cubic feet per second,” Ehlinger explains. He says Waukesha’s treated wastewater would augment the trickle by 16 to 17 cubic feet per second – that’s about 7600 gallons per minute.
“During times of year like this, you’ll have upwards to 90 percent of the flow of the river would be treated wastewater,” Ehlinger adds, "That’s really a difficult situation that we’re in because the law and the permits don’t require that those be studied, but we still have to ask the consequences of that if we’re going to have 90 percent of the base load during these times of year being treated effluent." He thinks regulators and planners should be pressed to think beyond existing environmental regulations.
Ehlinger points to the lush landscape along the Root’s banks.
“What are some the things we can start doing now that could make the problem less of a problem down the road. Why do we have discharge all of it right here? Would it make more sense to take this land a create a whole series of treatment wetlands, where rather than 10 million gallons a day going right into the river, could be spread through a whole series of wetlands that are known to be able to filter out and remove some of those pharmaceuticals,” he says.
Ehlinger believes Waukesha’s immediate challenge offers an opportunity to think deeper and plan smarter – especially with a potential new water system tapping into Lake Michigan. The city’s bid to draw Great Lakes water would be the first diversion since the Compact took effect in 2008.
The head of Waukesha's water utility, Dan Duchniak, staunchly maintains that Waukesha’s application to divert water from Lake Michigan to solve the city’s water woes could not be stronger.
“Thirty-two of the areas experts unanimously agreed that it is the best alternative for Waukesha was the Great Lake supply. It works within the confines of the Compact, and it’s an environmentally responsible way to get your citizens water,” Duchniak says.