City’s Water Problems Test Great Lakes Agreement

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, a report on the Michigan city of Wukesha’s efforts to solve its water problems by purchasing access to Lake Michigan.  As the article notes:

After studying its water woes for years, this former spa city of 68,000 has decided its best bet is to tap into Lake Michigan, 20 miles away.

But to get there, the city must pass through eight state capitals and get directions from two Canadian provinces, then it must route the treated water back. Waukesha must also win over skeptics in nearby Milwaukee, where it wants to buy the water.

“Everybody knows better than us how to solve our water problems,” says Dan Duchniak, general manager of Waukesha’s water utility, which plans to apply for the water through a new compact designed to protect the Great Lakes for generations to come.

As water becomes a bigger issue around the globe, Great Lakes states have moved aggressively to protect their most precious natural resource. A little over a year ago, President George W. Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact, which forbids any diversion of water outside the Great Lakes basin, the area where surface water flows into one of the lakes.

Places like Waukesha, which sits just outside the basin but within a county that straddles its edge, can apply for the water, but any of the Great Lakes states can veto the application. Ontario and Quebec also can weigh in. The compact is designed to assure that the door isn’t wide open for thirsty cities outside the basin to drain the lakes.

If this first application isn’t handled properly — or ends up in a lengthy legal dispute — the compact itself could come under fresh scrutiny.

“It’s about the precedent,” says Rich Bowman, director of government relations in Michigan for the Nature Conservancy. “Does Waukesha set a precedent that then allows Phoenix to say, ‘You did it for Waukesha, you ought to do it for us?’ That’s what everyone is ultimately concerned about.”

Waukesha, once called the Saratoga of the West for its spring waters and resort hotels, is today a mix of old and new neighborhoods surrounding a historic downtown.

The city’s water troubles started in the 1980s, when the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standards for radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element. After battling unsuccessfully against the regulation, Waukesha agreed to come into full compliance by 2018, under a deal with state officials.

When Mr. Duchniak was hired in Waukesha in 2003, his task was to study long-term options while tackling some near-term challenges.

[Wis. map]

The city gets most of its water from a 2,200-foot-deep aquifer that runs beside Lake Michigan from southern Wisconsin to northern Illinois. Overpumping has lowered the aquifer’s level near Waukesha as much as 600 feet. As the water level in the aquifer fell, radium and sodium levels rose.

Mr. Duchniak responded by gutting an old pumping house in a historic neighborhood and converting it into a radium-treatment facility. The utility also drilled shallower wells to tap into ground water, diluting the radium from the deeper wells.

He pushed for a new water-rate structure, restrictive sprinkler laws, and rebate programs for residents to update their fixtures — among the best conservation programs in the state, said Melissa Malott of Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group.

Mr. Duchniak considered several options to meet the city’s water needs and allow for modest growth. The city looked at recycling its waste water, damming the Fox River and turning to the springs that once made Waukesha famous. But besides tapping into the lake, Mr. Duchniak said the only viable option is to buy up land and water rights to the city’s west.

With a plentiful water supply in Lake Michigan and the ability to recycle the water back into the lake, “Why go develop some other area?” he asks.

So the city is forging ahead with its application to secure its water from the lake, preferably through Milwaukee’s water system, which has excess capacity. The $78 million project would involve about 30 miles of pipes — one bringing in lake water via a Milwaukee treatment plant and a second delivering treated waste water to a stream that leads back to Lake Michigan.

Ms. Malott of Clean Wisconsin praised the city’s “thoughtful process” under the compact rules but said the application would be scrutinized heavily.

Milwaukee officials also are uneasy about using the city’s water system to help another community grow.

“There will be pushback,” says Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman. He wants to be sure any deal rewards his city financially and fosters cooperation on issues like transportation.

Mr. Duchniak says Waukesha is preparing studies on the environmental impact of the project. He also says the city expects to pay Milwaukee about $2 million in annual water fees.

Waukesha expects to have its application before governors of the Great Lakes states by early summer. While he is optimistic about the city’s chances, Mr. Duchniak says Waukesha is prepared to go to court if the application is turned down “for the wrong reasons.”

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