WAUKESHA, Wisc. – The city of Waukesha has a radium problem, and it’s looking to Lake Michigan for a solution.
Although talks of drawing water from nearby Lake Michigan began in 2002, Waukesha has struggled with radium contamination since the late 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the acceptable limit for radium in public drinking water systems.
In 2010, Waukesha submitted an application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for an alternative water supply from Lake Michigan, citing its radium contamination, depleting aquifer and unsustainable water supply.
The more than $200 million proposal, known as the Great Water Alliance, will return 100 percent of the used water back into the lake. The city plans to draw 10-million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan.
The Great Lakes Compact, the legally binding agreement crafted by the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, details how the states and provinces regulate the Great Lake Basin’s water supply. Any community applying for a diversion must demonstrate it has exhausted all other options for getting water, according to the compact’s website.
Waukesha met the compact’s requirements, and the governments involved supported the agreement.
However, individuals have mixed feelings about the alliance. While residents mainly argue the project will hurt the city economically because water rates will increase, water advocacy groups cite the effect the diversion will have on the Root River carrying water back to Lake Michigan and on the lake itself.
Waukesha resident Sandy Hamm said the diversion is unreasonable.
“It’s just foolhardy to be pumping water from Lake Michigan 20-some miles out here and then pumping it back,” Hamm said.
Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper at the nonprofit group Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said her organization also opposes the diversion.
“We’ve never thought the diversion was the best option for Waukesha. We always thought they were asking for a lot more water than they were currently using,” Nenn said, referencing the city’s average daily water use of 6 million gallons in contrast to the proposal’s 10 million gallons. Nenn said the city must be prepared to extinguish a fire with its largest facility out of service.
Nenn said the Root River, which will carry water back to Lake Michigan, could have increased algae blooms due to higher amounts of nutrients entering the river.
“When there’s lower flow (during the summer), the pollution is more concentrated in the river so that’s something we would be concerned about,” Nenn said.
However, Waukesha resident Chris Curren said he supports the project.
“Other than figuring out how to pay for it, I’m for it,” Curren said. “Those against it seem to be because they think it will open up a floodgate, allowing other cities to do the same.”
One of those residents, Laurie Longtine, said she thinks the city is setting a negative legal precedent.
“I can just see a scenario where another community within the Great Lakes basin decides to apply for water … to grow and keep expanding,” said Longtine, a board member of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League. “All of these other communities could all stick a straw in it at any time and withdraw.”
While officials said they believe the city’s aquifer is declining and cited that as one of the reasons for the diversion, residents say otherwise.
Like Longtine, Waukesha resident Steve Edlund agrees the aquifer is rising. He began researching the United States Geological Survey’s data on the city’s aquifer in 2013 and found it was no longer declining 5 to 9 feet per year, but rather increasing.
However, Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility general manager, said the aquifer levels frequently fluctuate, causing the aquifer to appear to be rising.
Edlund said the radium problem is practically a nonissue, citing the city’s reluctance to install radium filters on four of the system’s wells that he said would effectively eliminate the contamination.
Duchniak said the diversion is not just about radium. He also identified total dissolved solids, or saltwater, as an additional contaminant.
“If this was just about radium, it would have been an easy solution,” Duchniak said. “It’s not just about radium – it’s about a sustainable water supply because we have other contaminants that we’ll have to deal with, and there’s other emerging contaminants that are coming down the pipeline.”
Edlund said he is also concerned with the socioeconomic impact the diversion will have on the community.
“There is no public assistance for your water bill and that’s scary,” Edlund said. “This is going to have a huge impact, especially on people that are lower income or fixed income. They are not going to be able to afford to live in the city of Waukesha. They’ll be forced out of their homes.”
The diversion does not have a definitive route for the pipeline yet. However, the project is expected to be completed by 2023, Duchniak said.
To see the full News21 report on “Troubled Water,” go troubledwater.news21.com on Aug. 14.