Waukesha Water Utility: Great Lakes Protection Document Should Include Groundwater

Great Lakes Annex should recognize, regulate withdrawals of
Lake Michigan groundwater, Waukesha says

The agreement being drafted to protect Great Lakes water should regulate groundwater, not just surface water, according to the City of Waukesha.

‘It’s well known that groundwater aquifers and surface waters are connected. By ignoring the fact that the Great Lakes groundwater divide is further west than the surface divide in southeastern Wisconsin, the draft agreement would allow unlimited and unregulated withdrawals of Great Lakes water,” said Dan Duchniak, General Manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. ‘That water could be sent to places with no hydrological links to the Great Lakes like Iowa, Las Vegas or even Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Waukesha is among the few municipalities that are within the Great Lakes groundwater divide but not the surface water divide. ‘We already use Lake Michigan groundwater,” Duchniak said. ‘And we believe the use of Great Lakes groundwater should be regulated with the same protections as Great Lakes surface water.”

‘Waukesha is willing to cap its use of Lake Michigan water at current levels,” Duchniak said. ‘But unless the Annex includes Great Lakes groundwater, there is no requirement for anyone to limit the use of that groundwater,” he said.

Waukesha currently uses deep aquifer water that is tributary to Lake Michigan, he said. Because of years of use by communities in southeastern Wisconsin and Illinois, the groundwater levels have dropped dramatically, leading to an increase in radium levels. The radium has forced the city to examine alternatives to the deep groundwater. ‘We did not create the problem on our own,” Duchniak said. ‘Even Milwaukee used the groundwater until it switched to Lake water in the 1960s. But we know we must do a much better job to conserve and protect our water supplies.”

‘One of our best alternatives would be a switch from Lake Michigan groundwater to Lake Michigan surface water,” Duchniak said. ‘The switch from Lake Michigan groundwater would lead to immediate improvement to the Great Lakes system by allowing the aquifer to recover. Groundwater is critical to the annual recharge of Great Lakes, accounting for between 50 and 80 percent of the recharge of Great Lakes watersheds.” But Duchniak said the current draft agreement by Great Lakes governors, known as the Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements, would lead to local environmental hardship if Waukesha switched to Lake Michigan surface water.

‘The draft does not recognize that we already use Lake Michigan groundwater. Because of that, if we switch to surface water, the definitions in the current draft would treat us as a new user and require us to send our waste water to Lake Michigan instead of the Fox River.”

Following the guidelines of the current Annex proposal could devastate a large Wisconsin wetland. Duchniak explained that the Fox River, along with the 4,600-acre Vernon Marsh in southern Waukesha County, depends on Waukesha’s waste water. ‘On August 1, 71% of the water flowing into the Vernon Marsh was waste water discharge. Requiring this water to be piped to Lake Michigan instead would cause significant harm to the Vernon Marsh by limiting the water available to the wildlife and ecosystems of the marsh.”

Duchniak said his solution would prevent all new or increased uses of Great Lakes groundwater unless it is returned. ‘Including groundwater in the Annex shuts the door on new and increased diversions of groundwater. It eliminates a loophole that allows that water to be used and shipped without limit to areas with no hydrological link to the Great Lakes.”

He said Waukesha can live with its current levels of Great Lakes water. ‘Waukesha has already reduced its water use by 25% since 1988, even with a 17% increase in population,” Duchniak said. ‘We plan to reduce water use by another 20% by 2020.” The city is discussing a regional conservation public education campaign with Milwaukee, but intended to also adopt water use restrictions and incentives, such as sprinkling bans, water audits and encouraging water-saving appliances.

‘But reducing water use is not enough,” Duchniak said. ‘We must protect water during every step of the water cycle, from rainfall and snow melt to the groundwater that recharges our lakes, streams and rivers.” He said Waukesha is developing a comprehensive plan of stormwater management, sourcewater protection and planning and zoning changes to protect and replenish water supplies. Many of the initiatives will require regional cooperation, because of the large size of the Lake Michigan groundwater recharge area.

Duchniak said it is important that the Annex is based on science. ‘By recognizing the true scientific boundary of the Great Lakes, the Annex would be less susceptible to legal challenges by those outside the region.”