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Residents Find City's Water Problem not Just About Radium

Waukesha's search for a new water supply deals with complex issues, including geology and chemistry.

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.

Resident’s Questions

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.

Paul S February 16, 2012 at 03:02 PM
I still see nothing in these discussions regarding compensation from our neighboring communities to help offset the cost of Waukesha pursuing this water source, thus lessening the impact on the water table and saving them millions of dollars. We are truly alone here... To avoid radium just drink softened water, it works right now and it will save us millions.
Sarah Millard (Editor) February 16, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Paul - that's what the communities in Brown County thought. Once Green Bay went to Lake Michigan, the other communities decided to stay on the well water. Unfortunately for those communities, they ran into the same problems years later and tried to buy water from Green Bay. Green Bay turned down their request and the suburban communities ended up having to build a pipeline to Manitowoc. I would suggest you attend one of these neighborhood meetings to learn more information.
the 'sha guy February 16, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Paul is correct in that the other neighboring communities will directly benefit by Waukesha paying for this entirely on its own. The other communities will not have to seek another source of water themselves and have NO expenses. Are there any sources or links for that information about the Green Bay / Brown County water issue that could be found or posted. As stated above, It appears that if other Waukesha County communities DO NOT help Waukesha with the cost of Great Lakes water that they will be left out in the cold should they ever want to purchase Lake Michigan water through Waukesha. Wouldn't it therefore be smart for these other Waukesha Communities to assist Waukesha with the cost? If they did help out Waukesha, these other communities wouldn't be stuck on the outside looking in should they ever need another source themselves? I bet those other Brown County communities wish they would have helped out to begin with. It would have been much cheaper for them in the long run. Perhaps the water utility and their council should speak to other communities to see if there is any interest in helping out. It would be a win-win for all parties.

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