Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A Wisconsin city's request could redefine who has access to the fresh water supply.
It's not just drought-affected Southern and Western states that are looking for ways to tap into new water supplies. Since 2010, the Midwestern city of Waukesha, Wisconsin—part of the Milwuakee metro area—has been angling for access to Lake Michigan's water reserves. And now, it's decision time.
Why Waukesha Needs Water
The city, which is 17 miles West of Lake Michigan, argues that its own water supply is unsustainable. The original request, filed five years ago this month, outlined the city's dilemma:
The City of Waukesha provides water to its customers primarily from deep wells, constructed to depths of 2,100 feet and withdrawing water from 800 to 1,000 feet below ground.
Because the wells are covered by layers of shale, rainwater doesn't help replenish the depleted water supply.
The report goes on to explain that there are financial, environmental, and health consequences to the existing pumping procedure. The biggest issue is that many of the sandstone wells are contaminated with radium. Since the element, a known carcinogen, is often present in these aquifers, the city has to remove it before water can be consumed by residents. That's proving to be tricky. The city conceded that it will be unable to meet a court-ordered deadline to provide a stable source of radium-free water to residents by June 2018, according to a memo provided to the Journal Sentinel.
As CityLab's Laura Bliss reported, we all have pretty massive water footprints, each using an average of 2,200 gallons per day. Waukesha hopes to divert as many as 10 million gallons of lake water daily. (Well, technically, it hopes to borrow them. The city would discharge treated wastewater into a creek that then flows into a local river tributary that eventually drains back into the lake.)
The Great Lakes Controversy
The plan might seem simple: Divert clean water to compensate for a less-than-sanitary reservoir, then give it back. But, as Chicagoist notes, the request is controversial because it's viewed by many as the first challenge to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.
The compact, a federal law passed in 2008, aims to protect bodies of water from usage by more inland states. The exception: counties that straddle basin divides. Waukesha meets that criteria—it's in between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.
Those gray areas concern Jared Teutsch, a member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes who authored a report about preserving the the compact. “We need a compact implementation that’s water-tight,” Teutsch wrote. “There’s too much at stake, and too much public investment, to let all that hard work simply drain away.”
Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources has announced that it's finished reviewing the proposal. A decision is expected this week. If the petition gets the green light in its home state, it still faces evaluation by the seven other states that border the Great Lakes.