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Wisconsin town wants a drink of Lake Michigan water

NASA Landsat

The Great Lakes Compact is facing its first big challenge. Signed into law in 2008 by the leaders of eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, the compact says only communities in the Great Lakes Basin can draw their drinking water from the lakes.

The challenge to the compact is not coming from thirsty states like California or Texas. It comes from Waukesha, Wisconsin – a suburb of Milwaukee that’s only about 15 miles from Lake Michigan.

Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, says the town currently gets its water from underground wells. But about 250 feet down, there is a thick layer of shale that acts as a barrier, allowing chemicals to stick around in Waukesha’s deep wells. As a result, Waukesha’s water is full of radium.

“We are in violation of the radium standard that the EPA has set and we need to come into compliance with that radium standard," says Duchniak.

Waukesha has until 2018 to drastically improve its ability to filter radium out of its water supply. Or it could easily draw fresh water from Lake Michigan.

Last month, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released a long-awaited environmental report saying Lake Michigan water is the only reasonable long-term option for Waukesha. Even some environmentalists, like Jim Olson from the Traverse City-based FLOW: For Love of Water, agree that Waukesha doesn’t have much choice. 

“I think, generally, they have established a threshold case that they need this water … that they don’t have an alternative water source because of the radium," says Olson. "The questions are going to most significantly be what are they doing to conserve?”

The Great Lakes Compact does allow towns in counties that straddle the Great Lakes basin to apply for a diversion of water. Waukesha County meets that qualification. But being able to show you can conserve Great Lakes water is one of the requirements.

Duchniak says Waukesha has been conserving water “aggressively” since 2006.

“Waukesha understands that water conservation is going to be part of our future regardless of our water supply alternative," says Duchniak.

Still, many environmental groups are unconvinced that Waukesha will be able to conserve water and return enough treated water back to the Great Lakes. A coalition of seven regional environmental groups is vocal in opposition to Waukesha’s diversion request.

Duchniak asks that Wisconsin’s Great Lakes neighbors just hear the town out.

“If you want to protect the Great Lakes, you want Waukesha to be successful because you want to show that the compact works," he says.

The Wisconsin DNR’s environmental report still needs to go through a public review and comment process. After that, Waukesha’s proposal goes to the governors of eight Great Lakes states.