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Waukesha businesses wait for water answers

By Sean Ryan

Wausau Homes Inc. is opening a renovated office in Waukesha the day after city officials are expected to decide whether to buy Lake Michigan water.

Like other business owners in the community, Wausau Homes owner Keith Knapp said he is unsure how the city’s search for a new water source will affect his homebuilding company.

“I’ve not heard of one person who has brought that up,” said Knapp, president of the Wausau Homes dealership in Waukesha. “Behind the scenes, I’m aware of that, and other businesses are aware of that.”

The Waukesha Common Council on Thursday will consider whether the city should apply for state approval to spend $164 million to build a pipeline, pump stations and other infrastructure to buy Lake Michigan water and pump it to Waukesha. The city also could pursue more expensive options, such as digging more groundwater wells.

Waukesha needs a new water source because water in the underground wells the city now uses do not meet federal standards for radium content and, if the wells are drained further, the water quality will worsen.

Local business associations — including the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce and Sustainable Water Supply Coalition — are backing the Lake Michigan plan, which offers the guaranteed, long-term water source businesses want, said Mary Baer, membership development liaison for the chamber.

“Water is probably the oil of this century,” she said. “And we believe, the Waukesha County chamber believes, that water is an economic development issue.”

Waukesha businesses are considering the water problem when planning for growth, said Brian Nemoir, executive director of the Sustainable Water Supply Coalition. The worst-case scenario — no new source is tapped and the city rations water use — seems far-fetched, but businesses are not dismissing it, said Nemoir, owner of Full Impact Communications LLC, Delafield.

“Do we want to put the city of Waukesha on par with the Atlantas and the Arizonas of the world who have very real water problems?” he said.

The local choice to avoid that situation will be easy, Nemoir said.

More difficult, he said, would be Waukesha’s request for approval from a board consisting of the governors of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

“For me to say that this could happen or could not happen, the ball is not in my hands,” he said.

Knapp, who said he spent Friday morning putting finishing touches on his renovated showroom, said he will be paying attention when the council meets Thursday, primarily because he does not yet know if the future of his and other businesses depends on the decision.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out,” he said, “because, at this point, I’m not quite sure. We’re going to have to address that somehow.”

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