Weighing the Impacts of Waukesha’s Lake Michigan Water Diversion Plan

Jul 28, 2015

Waukesha’s proposal to tap into Lake Michigan is inching forward after years of debate and revision.

The city is under federal order to secure clean water for residents because their underground source is increasing concentrated with radium, a health hazard.

The state DNR recently gave the nod to Waukesha’s application.

Now the public can comment. The task is not for the faint of heart - the document is 380 pages long and filled with graphs and scientific jargon.

Dan Duchniak is familiar with every inch of the proposal. He’s general manager of the city’s water utility.

The proposal envisions pumping in 10 million gallons of Lake Michigan water every day from Oak Creek’s utility and returning it via the Root River.

Duchniak is buoyed by the DNR’s decision to move along Waukesha’s application. “Their findings were consistent with ours that the only reasonable water supply alternative for the City of Waukesha is the Great Lakes,” he says.

But Waukesha needs the permission of all eight states and two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes. They signed a compact in 2008 to protect the massive freshwater system from diversions.

Waukesha can apply for an exception because it sits within a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin.

Jim Drought recently examined the utility’s application. He’s a hydrologist with the company GZA GeoEnvironmental.

A consortium called the Compact Implementation Coalition hired the firm to scrutinize the proposal... “To evaluate if there would be a reasonable alternative for using the existing water resources to meet the current project future water demands for the City of Waukesha,” he says.

Jim Drought’s analysis? Waukesha doesn’t need Lake Michigan water. The city has an ample supply in its existing well system and can effectively treat the radium.

“Reverse osmosis, or RO, that’s used on 40 or more different community-based water treatment supply areas here in Wisconsin to treat radium. It is a practice and system…accepted by the US EPA,” Drought says. (Correction: WUWM learned from the DNR that while approximately 45 Wisconsin systems have been required to take action regarding radium, only one is using reverse osmosis.)

Drought restricted his analysis to Waukesha’s current service footprint.

The city’s plan folds in portions of neighboring communities, such as the Towns of Delafield and Genesee.

“The (Compact Implementation) Coalition believes that the expanded water supply service area is legally inconsistent with Compact and for that reason we focused on the existing water supply area,” Drought says.

Waukesha’s Dan Duchniak says the coalition doesn’t have its facts straight. “First off, state law requires it, requires us to provide for a service area,” he says. “It’s proper planning and when you’re investing like we’re going to, you are sizing your infrastructure correctly to serve your customers. The last thing you want to do is 20 or 30 years down the road and have some ask for water, you’ve made this $200 million investment only to find out – oops we sized the pipe wrong, we can’t give you water."

Duchniak says Waukesha will clean and return 100 percent of the water it borrows from Lake Michigan.

His confidence does not soothe Cheryl Nenn. She works with Milwaukee Riverkeeper and is a member of the coalition that sought the review. She says the Great Lakes Compact sets a high bar which she believes, Waukesha does not reach.

“One of the provisions and primary provision of getting a diversion is that you have no reasonable water supply alternative, that’s really number one. And we’re not just talking about the 10 million gallons per day which Waukesha is asking for. We’re really talking this being this first test case that is one of many straws in the future that is going to start sucking from the Great Lakes,” Nenn says.


WUWM stated in a quote that 40 or more different community-based water treatment supply areas use reverse osmosis technology to treat radium. After the story aired, WUWM learned from the DNR that while approximately 45 Wisconsin systems have been required to take action regarding radium, only one is using reverse osmosis.