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Waukesha (WI) Promotes Water Conservation, Environmentally Responsible Water Supply Planning

By Waukesha (WI) Mayor Larry Nelson
March 23, 2009


Waukesha (WI) is located in the southeastern portion of Wisconsin, close to Lake Michigan. The city was first incorporated in 1846, and currently has a population of 64,825. It was named in the top 100 Best Places to Live in 2006 by Money Magazine. However, the city faces a tremendous challenge in providing a safe, adequate and affordable water supply for its citizens, businesses and institutions. We are meeting the on-going challenge with proactive strategies and creative thinking.

Limitations of Local Water Supply

Waukesha needs a new water supply for several reasons. The deep aquifer we depend on has been severely drawn down by years of over-pumping by communities in southeastern Wisconsin, including past pumping by Milwaukee. A unique geological feature limits recharge of the aquifer from rain and snow in much of the region. Consequently, we have had to pump water from as far down as 2,000 feet, and in this strata of the aquifer the groundwater can contain contaminants or have other problems. Some of the water has essentially been salt water. The city has also pumped water with temperatures as high as 98 degrees.

The contaminants include radium. We are under orders to reduce or eliminate it from our water supply to protect public health, despite our $13.5 million in radium treatment investments so far. However, even without the radium problem, continued use of the deep aquifer is not a sustainable option, so we are seeking a new, sustainable and healthy water supply.

Leading Midwest in Water Conservation

Water use by customers of the Waukesha Water Utility dropped 25 percent from 1988 to 2004, despite a 17 percent increase in population. The utility took additional steps by adopting a comprehensive water conservation plan in 2006 to achieve further reductions, with a goal of 20 percent reductions per capita by 2020. Waukesha’s plan has made it the Midwest’s leader in water conservation efforts.

The new conservation plan has already achieved an 11 percent reduction in water use. The city adopted a new ordinance that bans daytime sprinkling and limits sprinkling at other times to two days per week. In partnership with Kohler, water'saving toilets, urinals and faucet aerators were installed at Waukesha city hall as a demonstration project for utility customers. Waukesha Water Utility is also the first utility in the state to start a rebate program to replace old, inefficient toilets – a major source of wasted water. With a subsequent changeover from a water-cooled to an air-cooled air conditioning system, water use is now down 90 percent at city hall.

Waukesha’s conservation plan includes other initiatives. For example, in our land use planning practices, we have incorporated storm-water regulations and have redefined development practices to ensure low impact development techniques are followed. A regional conservation planning group has been established to advise the city. We have also helped develop education programs in the schools to raise awareness among our students about their stewardship role in the community.

An Environmentally Responsible Approach to Regional Water Supply Agreements

Following an agreement by the Great Lakes governors in December 2005, the Great Lakes'st. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was passed by the legislatures of the eight Great Lakes states and ratified in 2008 by Congress. This historic agreement protects the resources of the Great Lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. The Compact generally prohibits diversions of water beyond the surface divide that defines the Great Lakes basin, but makes exceptions for communities in counties that straddle the divide. In southeastern Wisconsin, that divide is very close to Lake Michigan.

Waukesha is less than 20 miles from the lake, just outside the surface divide but within a straddling county. That makes the city eligible for Lake Michigan water under certain strict conditions, including water conservation, the return of the water it uses to the lake, and the permission of the eight Great Lakes governors. Waukesha will likely be the first city to apply to the Great Lakes governors for lake water. My intention is for our application to set a high bar for any city in straddling counties that would apply for water. My hope is that Waukesha’s application will prove that the new Compact works, protecting the Great Lakes while meeting the legitimate water needs of nearby communities.

According to expert studies and a new regional water supply study, the best environmental option for Waukesha to augment its water supply is to access Lake Michigan water. Lake Michigan water, unlike groundwater, can be recycled back to its source. Waukesha has developed an innovative proposal to return water to Lake Michigan by using a tributary river instead of a pipe. Thus, the city would create a positive new precedent of using wastewater as a resource to improve regional surface waters.

River experts confirm that the tributaries, their fish and other aquatic life would benefit from the increased flow of water, especially during the driest parts of the year. The city’s very high quality of wastewater treatment meets all state water quality standards and is superior to that of lakeside communities.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, if communities in southeastern Wisconsin end their use of the deep aquifer, it will recover 50 percent in seven years and 90 percent in 70 years. In addition, a switch to lake water would allow users to stop or reduce their use of water softeners, reducing the amount of salt that ends up in the discharge into our surface waters. Energy use would also be reduced as the city turned off pumps that bring up water from up to 2,000 feet underground.

Waukesha’s application for Great Lakes water would allow recovery of the deep aquifer. Our landmark proposal to use return flow water as a resource would improve the environment for the region. Our water conservation efforts have created a new standard for utilities in the Great Lakes states. And Waukesha’s commitment to recycle water back to Lake Michigan after use would protect our water resources and prove that the Great Lakes Compact will work in meeting reasonable state needs for water while protecting Lake Michigan from any harm.