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Wisconsin City at forefront of ‘water wars’

WAUKESHA, Wis. — This city has become the battleground for one of North America’s fiercest water wars, one that is taking the Great Lakes region into more uncharted legal territory in 2017.

A council of eight gubernatorial-level officials in charge of the landmark Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is expected to decide soon if a Chicago-based coalition representing 127 U.S. and Canadian cities has grounds to challenge a major water-withdrawal permit issued last June to the city of Waukesha, Wis.

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Mike Robe of the Oak Creek Water and Sewer Utility works at the control panel of the Oak Creek water treatment plant in Oak Creek, Wis.

THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
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Waukesha, under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve uncertainty over its future water supply, lies just outside the Great Lakes basin.

It is designing a pipeline to divert 8.2 million gallons a day of treated Lake Michigan water from the nearby city of Oak Creek, Wis., which has agreed to sell it the water it needs. Both are near Milwaukee. Oak Creek, unlike Waukesha, is within the Great Lakes basin.

The request for a hearing was filed in August by the Chicago-based Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. The coalition’s northwest Ohio members include Toledo, Oregon, and Sandusky.

The compact is an agreement among the eight Great Lakes states to ban diversions and bulk exports of Great Lakes water outside the region.

But it has an exemption that allows cities and counties straddling the natural lake basin to become customers if they can prove a hardship exists and show that all other potential alternatives have been exhausted.

Waukesha is the first city to seek such an exemption since the compact was signed into law almost nine years ago. The impetus for the compact was a 1998 effort by a small Canadian firm to ship Lake Superior water to Asia in tankers.

The firm, called the Nova Group, eventually relinquished the permit it had obtained from the province of Ontario following an international uproar. But the case underscored how vulnerable the Great Lakes region has become to diversion and bulk-export threats as fresh water becomes more scarce globally, especially in the American Southwest.

Cities such as Waukesha, which are part of the Great Lakes region but just outside the basin, argued for the exemption. Wisconsin and Ohio have the most near-basin communities that could seek that exemption in decades ahead, as competition for fresh water intensifies.

With its working class and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, its rich history, and its long-distressed downtown now showing signs of a comeback, Waukesha is a city of 71,000 people much like Toledo.

At a recent workshop hosted by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, Mayor Reilly said Waukesha’s exemption is based on “rigorous and scientific review.”

“Even though Waukesha is not within the basin of the Great Lakes, it is undeniably a city within the Great Lakes region,” Mr. Reilly said. “Our region is and can be a true powerhouse in the entire world. We are a true region and have to act like a region.”

Ironically, Waukesha’s history is steeped in stories about how it was once a resort area known as “Spring City,” and the “Saratoga of the West” because of an abundance of pure spring-fed water it had in the 1800s. In 1873, a brochure featuring Col. Richard Dunbar, a diabetic, proclaimed Waukesha’s water yielded amazing health benefits. Waukesha by then was drawing so many visitors in search of the city’s so-called “healing waters” that officials had to figure out how to manage the influx.

More than 50 springs were believed to be inside the city during the 1800s, with others in surrounding Waukesha County.

“This city was a water destination,” Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars and co-director of Northland College’s Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, said.

Most springs have dried up or been paved over. One exception is Hobo Spring in Frame Park.

The problem today is a combination of naturally occurring radium and geological deposits with excessive salts and minerals.

Wells have been depleted, and a type of impervious shale that exists throughout southeast Wisconsin makes it unlikely that groundwater levels will ever recharge to what they were, Mr. Reilly said.

In Waukesha, that shale is about 150 feet deep. Groundwater there has become more brackish over time from total dissolved solids and naturally occurring salt in deep water, as well as other contaminants such as arsenic, fly ash, and chloride.

“The aquifer’s not sustainable,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s not recharging because of a shale layer that keeps it from recharging.”

He and Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility general manager, said the city will most likely fail to meet the U.S. EPA’s court-ordered deadline for a long-term fix by June 2018.

The project is currently in its design phase. Even if the city successfully fends off the challenge, construction of the pipeline between Oak Creek and Waukesha, which in 2010 was estimated to cost $206 million, won’t start until 2019, Mr. Duchniak said.

“If this was just about radium, we wouldn’t be here today,” Mr. Duchniak said. “We need something more sustainable. We can treat radium now. There’s a lot of water down there, but it’s saltwater. We need a water supply that’s going to serve us for generations to come.”

Several Great Lakes environmental groups have opposed Waukesha’s plan, mostly out of concern about the door it would open for other near-basin communities in Wisconsin and Ohio. 

When the compact was being written and considered by each of the states, Canada’s largest environmental group, the Council of Canadians, sent activists throughout the region to characterize the future agreement as a U.S. ploy to accommodate urban sprawl with the exemptions.

But one of the fiercest critics is Racine, Wis., Mayor John Dickert, who questions the degree to which Waukesha’s treated sewage effluent might impact the Root River and, ultimately, his community’s beaches and marinas.

Racine sits downriver from Waukesha, about the same distance south of Milwaukee that Waukesha is west of it.

Waukesha vows not to discharge effluent with an algae-growing phosphorus level greater than 0.075 parts per million into the Root, a Lake Michigan tributary. Under its exemption, Waukesha promises its return flow to Lake Michigan, via the Root, will be equal to the amount of treated Lake Michigan water it gets from Oak Creek. The goal is to have no net loss to the lake.

Nick Schroeck, director of Wayne State University’s Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, said fears about a rush on Great Lakes water have been overblown.

Groups that worry about diversions should focus more on conservation and efficiency, from how water’s used on lawns and golf courses to how it’s used in manufacturing and irrigated for agriculture.

“It’s always been this fear of a massive tanker,” Mr. Schroeck said. “I strongly believe the conservation and efficiency measures should get more emphasis.”

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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