Waukesha’s new water app bypasses Milwaukee

The City of Waukesha has submitted an updated application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for permission to tap into Lake Michigan for its drinking water.

The community is under a federal order to find a new source because the underground aquifer it uses is tainted with radium.

The city lies outside the Lake Michigan watershed. A regional compact requires that such outliers must first obtain permission from all eight states that drain into the Great Lakes before withdrawing water from the lake.

Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, said the revised application updates the city’s conservation plan. He said Waukesha would return as much treated water to the lake as it removes.

In the revised application, Waukesha is pursuing an agreement in which the City of Oak Creek would provide the Lake Michigan water, rather than the City of Milwaukee. Under terms of the new plan, the Waukesha Water Utility will sends $4 million to $5 million to the Oak Creek Water Utility annually for its water supply.

“Residents of the Great Lakes states should support Waukesha’s application,” said Oak Creek Mayor Stephen Scaffidi. “Waukesha has gone to great lengths to create a model application that protects the environment, promotes public health and returns every drop of water back to the lake. In working with Waukesha, Oak Creek has created a win-win scenario that is great for our region and promotes efficiency in local government, goals that can be supported by taxpayers regardless of what state they live in.”

The DNR rejected a plan floated by the City of Milwaukee, which refused to provide water to rural areas surrounding the City of Waukesha, presumably because Milwaukee did not want to provide incentives for more suburban development.

The revised application also includes a change in Waukesha’s preferred route for returning water to the Great Lakes after use. The new preference is to return the water via the Root River, a tributary that flows to Lake Michigan.

The Root River was among the alternatives included in Waukesha’s original application, but a discharge to Underwood Creek in Milwaukee County was the preferred return flow route at that time.

“The Root is not a new alternative, but it is now our preferred alternative,” Duchniak said.

Duchniak said he would not be surprised if officials of the City of Milwaukee lobby to stop Waukesha’s agreement with Oak Creek.

Patrick Curley, chief of staff for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, said Barrett will continue to speak out about his concerns that the Waukesha proposal includes no defined service area, but the City of Milwaukee will not be hiring any lobbyists to “backdoor” derail the Waukesha project.

The DNR will review the new Waukesha application for about three months and devise an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The agency will then conduct public hearings and accept public comments about the EIS. If the plan is approved by the DNR, it will be sent to the states in the Great Lakes Compact territory. All of the governors in the territory would then need to approve the plan before it could be enacted.

Environmental advocates will be closely monitoring the process.

“Waukesha has to make a compelling case on the legal and scientific merits that they have no reasonable water supply alternatives other than a diversion, including full implementation of required water conservation and efficiency measures” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, of counsel to Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law center in Madison. “To date, they have not made a convincing argument on that score.”

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