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View from around the state: Waukesha makes compelling case for water

The Conference of Great Lakes Governors should not be — and will not be — a rubber stamp for the city of Waukesha’s request to draw its water supply from Lake Michigan. The conference should give proper weight to the concerns of critics who argue that there are simpler and less expensive alternatives to the city’s plan to build a $207 million network of pipes and pumps to divert lake water and return the flow as treated wastewater to the lake.

But the conference also needs to understand the hard and thorough work that the city and the state Department of Natural Resources have put into this proposal. After 5-1/2 years of study, the DNR has determined that drawing water from Lake Michigan is Waukesha’s best option for meeting a federal order to clean up its water supply, which is tainted by naturally occurring radium in the deep aquifer that now provides the city’s water, and is being depleted at an unacceptable rate.

This is the first test of the 2008 Great Lakes compact designed to, among other things, protect the lakes from unwarranted diversions of water outside the natural Great Lakes basin. It will set a precedent and it needs to be done right.

Last week, the DNR forwarded the city’s request to the governors conference; Waukesha is allowed to make the request because of a provision in the compact that makes an exception for communities in counties that straddle the basin’s border.

According to the draft technical review released by the DNR in June, Waukesha “does not have a reasonable water supply alternative” to Lake Michigan water. The DNR draft says other water supplies “are likely to have greater adverse environmental impacts due to projected impacts on wetlands and lakes” and that its analysis “demonstrates that the applicant cannot meet water supply needs through conservation of existing supplies.”

In a news release, the city noted that its plan would withdraw one one-millionth of 1 percent from the lake and return the same volume after treatment. “Waukesha’s request will have no impact on lake levels,” said Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly.

The DNR and the city have made a compelling case that Waukesha can provide its citizens with a clean supply of water from the big lake and return it without harm to the lake or the watershed.

Nevertheless, there are critics, such as the Compact Implementation Coalition, who seek to block the city’s request, claiming that more conservation, reducing the city’s planned service area and new technology can meet the city’s needs. But as Dan Duchniak, Waukesha’s Water Utility director, noted in an op-ed on this page in July, the city, the DNR and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission had already studied and rejected those claims.

“Even with a reduced water demand, the DNR found that groundwater use would cause damage to 700 to 2,300 acres of wetlands, along with damage to streams, lakes and groundwater resources,” Duchniak wrote. “Modeling by Waukesha at higher withdrawal levels of use showed even greater impacts.”

Under the compact, any state in the conference can veto Waukesha’s request. The group’s examination begins Jan. 7 with a webinar briefing sponsored by the Chicago-based Conference of Great Lakes Governors. The group plans to hold public meetings, including one in Waukesha, and complete its review in six months.

That review should be thorough and open-minded, ignoring politics and adhering to the best science, which we think argues in Waukesha’s favor. We hope the conference agrees.

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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