Dozens of Waukesha residents came to Horning Middle School Wednesday night for what they thought would be a discussion about radium levels in the city’s water supply and how the city’s working to become compliant with federal levels by June 2018.
But what the residents soon discovered is that Waukesha’s search for a new water supply is not just about radium levels. Declining water quality and quantity are major reasons the city is seeking to divert Lake Michigan water past the Subcontinental Divide.
While radium levels were the “impetus” for the city to seek Great Lakes water, it is not only for that reason, said General Manager Dan Duchniak.
“It is an overall water quality issues and water quantity issue,” Duchniak said.
The city needs approval from all Great Lakes states because it is just outside the Subcontinental Divide where water flow naturally to Lake Michigan. It also would need to return the water to the Great Lakes, which it has proposed to do via Underwood Creek.
“We want to do it right the first time, not only for our families, but for our children’s families and our grandchildren’s families,” said Alderman Terry Thieme.
The meeting was the first of a series of meetings being hosted by some city aldermen as they look to educate people in their districts about the city’s search for a water supply.
In addition to being under a June 2018 deadline to remove radium from the city’s water supplies, Waukesha has declining water quality and quantity in its eight deep wells and three shallow wells.
“This isn’t something that is new for the City of Waukesha,” Duchniak said. “This is something we have been working on for a long time.”
Waukesha's Unique Water Situation
Waukesha’s geology is “unique,” Duchniak said, because a shale layer prevents water from recharging the city’s deep aquifers. The city’s deep wells currently pull water from 550 to 600 feet down. Southeastern Wisconsin is in a groundwater management area that was established by state law. Any areas that have a drawdown of 150 feet or more are considered bad under the state law. Green Bay and Southeastern Wisconsin, including Waukesha, are the two areas in the state that are in a groundwater management area.
In addition to radium, the deep wells have problems with total dissolved solids and temperature. At times, water pulled from the wells have reached as high as 98 degrees, according to the presentation. The shallow wells have issues with iron and manganese. Additionally, arsenic has been found on a property in the Town of Waukesha where the city could build shallow wells, which would require more treatment.
Even if the city is unsuccessful in obtaining water from Lake Michigan, the city would still have to pay capital expenditures to fix the city’s water supply. Under any scenario, water bills are projected to at least double. However, the sanitary sewer portion of the bill would remain the same.
“All options are outside of the city limits for future water supplies,” Duchniak said. “… Doing nothing is not an option.”
When it comes to sustainability, Great Lakes water is the most sustainable, Duchniak said. The Common Council in April 2010 agreed to pursue the option of purchasing Great Lakes water and to get approvals from the Great Lakes states.
“We believe it is the best alternative for the City of Waukesha,” Duchniak said.
The residents had many questions about the water supply, especially if Waukesha were to purchase water from Milwaukee. Waukesha is currently in negotiations with Oak Creek and Racine and is also looking into negotiating with Milwaukee.
Some residents expressed concerns of Milwaukee charging drastic water rate increases once Waukesha has agreed to purchase water. However, Duchniak made it clear that the Public Service Commission, which is appointed by the governor, regulates the water rate increases. Milwaukee has to prove that the water rate increases are directly related to the cost of providing the suburban communities water.
The timeline going forward
Waukesha Water Utility officials hope that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will complete its two-year review of its application to obtain Lake Michigan water and forward it to other Great Lakes states for approval. Already working on a tight timetable to finish the water project by the June 2018 deadline, the water utility anticipates a decision from all the Great Lakes states by the end of the year.
The water utility would like to see negotiations completed by July with the three communities. That would allow the Common Council to make its ultimate decision by January 2013. Construction would begin in June 2014, if all moves forward.
The next neighborhood meetings
- District 9, Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings, March 1,
- District 12, Alderman Rick Hastings, March 15,
- District 6, Alderman Brian White, March 29,
Common Council members Andy Reiland, Joan Francoeur and Paul Ybarra are in the process of scheduling neighborhood meetings.