For about two decades, Waukesha elected officials and city staff have worked hard to ensure that residents have a sustainable source of water, and finally, there is light at the end of the water tunnel as the city prepares to switch over to Lake Michigan water in August.
For the past few years, the project was highly visible as construction crews laid miles of pipeline to and from Milwaukee County to bring water to Waukesha and then to return it to a Lake Michigan tributary as part of the agreement the city reached under the Great Lakes Water Compact.
It’s a move that became necessary after the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that Waukesha needed to find a long-term sustainable water solution after it was discovered that the city’s deep aquifer was contaminated with radium, as well as a declining amount of water in the aquifer. In the interim, the city has been blending water to provide safe and EPA-compliant water.
In March, the significant milestone of raising the booster pumping station near Broadway and the Waukesha West Bypass was reached. While all of these highly visible milestones have been achieved, the city has laid a lot of groundwork behind the scenes as it helps area businesses prepare for the water switch.
Businesses big and small will feel the impact when treated Lake Michigan water runs through their taps, including food producers, pet stores and hospitals. The major reason being that the City of Milwaukee treats its water differently by using chloramines versus Waukesha’s application of chlorine.
Mayor Shawn Reilly said the Waukesha Water Utility has reached out to businesses across the city to make sure they are informed of what they need to do to prepare.
“The business community has been an enormous champion to get water from Lake Michigan. I think that kind of tells you that they recognized how important it is,” Reilly said.
Companies like Lifeway Foods Inc., which makes kefir products, and Raised Grain Brewing Co., which brews beer, could be impacted by the different chemical composition of the treated water from Lake Michigan.
“Beyond comprising most of what’s in the beer glass, water’s unique chemistry has tremendous effects on the brewing process and the flavor of the resulting beverage,” said Andrew Nordquist, creative lead for Raised Grain.
The brewery, which also has a taproom open to the public in Waukesha, purchased a reverse osmosis water-treatment method which removes impurities and minerals in water.
“With an RO setup, Raised Grain can take whatever water, whether it’s Waukesha spring or Lake Michigan, strip it down to almost pure H2O, and build it back up to our exact specifications. The RO water is a blank canvas ready to be colored by our brewers,” Nordquist said.
Pet stores and pet owners will be impacted as well by the water change, primarily those who sell and keep fish aquariums and reptiles. Water will need to be dechlorinated before it is provided to the animals. Even hospitals need to be cognizant of the change when it comes to how it performs kidney dialysis.
City staff is not alone in keeping business leaders informed. The Waukesha County Business Alliance has worked with its members closely during the process and has openly supported the city acquiring Lake Michigan water. Suzanne Kelley, president and chief executive officer of the alliance, said there is a “high level of understanding” among city businesses thanks to extensive education during the course of several years.
Kelley said the Business Alliance worked closely with the city to make sure businesses had the knowledge and tools they needed to understand how the water transition would affect them and if they needed to alter their operations at all.
“We have been hearing from and talking to Business Alliance members all along. This has been an important issue for us and we have been educating members to understand its importance,” Kelley said, adding that the Alliance was involved at many levels, from its policy committee to its board of directors. “The completion of this project is a big win for the community.”
Should questions remain for business owners, they should reach out to the Waukesha Water Utility, which has experts who can meet with businesses and help them navigate the change, said Dan Duchniak, director of Waukesha Water Utility.
What the transition will look like
Switching to Lake Michigan water won’t be an immediate change. Duchniak said the transition will take about a week to 10 days to complete as water storage and reservoirs are emptied and then refilled with new water from Milwaukee. During the transition, Waukesha will increase the chlorine concentration in its water so the chloramine in Milwaukee’s water does not eliminate the chlorine in the city’s water.
He said during this period people might notice the smell of chlorine from their water, but it is safe to drink. It also might taste a little different because Waukesha’s water has a higher mineral content currently and Milwaukee’s water will be softer, an attribute that Reilly said will help people’s appliances like dishwashers and water heaters last longer.
While water rates have increased incrementally in Waukesha during the past few years, the changes are not over, with two more significant increases planned for the end of 2023 to the start of 2024 and another one at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025 to account for construction costs.
Even with the increase in the cost to use Waukesha’s water, for many businesses it’s a low cost when compared to the rest of the costs that a business accrues, Reilly said.
“Generally, water is a very low cost in the processes, and we have worked with many of the manufacturers who use a lot of water to reduce the consumption of water,” Reilly said, adding that in recent years companies have begun to recycle their water and reuse it. By using less water through these conservation methods, companies won’t feel the rising cost of a gallon of city water.
In the end, having a sustainable source of water for the next 100 to 200 years is a strong selling point for businesses and residents to locate in Waukesha, said Reilly, especially considering the water plight in other parts of the country such as the Southwest.
Based on conversations with real estate agents, Duchniak said rising water bills for home usage is not a deterrent for people wanting to live in Waukesha.
“The biggest factor is a long-term water source,” he said, adding that a family of four generally pays more for cell phones monthly than they do for sewer and water.
Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, said while having a sustainable source of water is important, it’s not something that is of much concern for home buyers and sellers.
“Everyone thinks it has already been dealt with,” he said, explaining that real estate agents were more concerned about the process about 15 years ago, including if they would need to issue a disclosure about the water when selling a home.
“At the end of the day, it will be water and it’s clean,” Ruzicka said. “This is a good example of how the government did something proactive and did it well.”