Waukesha Sells its Citizens Short on Water Options

There’s a lot of hubbub in the Great Lakes over the recent water deal between Milwaukee and Waukesha. This new agreement, which has social, political, and environmental ramifications, caught the region by surprise in part because for as long as any of us can remember the two cities have been battling it out over whether Waukesha should be allowed to access Lake Michigan water.  The conflict was the major driver behind the bi-national Great Lakes Compact (more formally known as the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact), as well as the 2007 award-winning book The Great Lakes Water Wars.  Most of the news has focused on who’s getting what from the new agreement, but after all these years there’s still a gaping hole in the conversation.

Waukesha is a city built on water.  The lovely community on the Fox River traces its growth to its high-quality spring water, a natural resource that started attracting tourists in the 1800’s . The city famously fought off private interests that tried to pipe the water to Chicago during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Fast forward one hundred years and the city’s profligate use had drawn its aquifer down to the point where naturally occurring radium started causing concerns regarding the safety of the water supply.  Waukesha needed an alternative.

A true consideration of alternatives never really had a chance.  Watching from the sidelines it seemed to me that Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility’s general manager, had his eyes set on Lake Michigan water (which tastes much better than the region’s groundwater, and is touted by realtors when showing homes within the Lake Michigan delivery area) from the start and never gave other alternatives any real chance.

The official alternatives analysis, found in section 4.3 of the city’s application, only looked at nearby groundwater and surface water alternatives and quickly dismissed any technological approaches.  Given that the region is trying to promote itself as global water technology hub, it is especially odd that the best it could do for Waukesha was old-school pump-and-pipe technology not much different than what the 1893 bandits tried. While other regions of the country are investing in sustainable, flexible solutions, Waukesha is marching toward a large, inflexible, “grey” solution to its water challenges.

Water reuse is an option that more and more utilities are turning to, and not just those in water-scarce regions. The technology is experiencing rapid uptake in utilities and industries of all sizes as they recognize the insanity of essentially throwing away the clean water coming out of their water recovery facilities (i.e. sewage treatment plants). For decades many communities have been capturing the reclaimed water and putting it to use for irrigation, cooling water, or specific industrial processes, and today we see leading communities taking it up a notch to returning the water directly into the potable water delivery system. (See, for instance, this undated article on Disney’s water reuse. Based on the reference to Hurricane Georges, I’m guessing it’s from 1998.)  Out on the cutting edge, some are even laying the groundwork for on-site direct potable reuse.  Astronauts do it, why can’t we earthlings?

If Waukesha isn’t quite ready for water re-use, certainly rainwater harvest can play a significant role in helping to provide the additional water the city needs.  Taking it up a notch from our backyard rain barrels, harvesting free water to offset irrigation or indoor plumbing needs is getting easier and easier.  It can be done by individual homeowners, or  by larger, commercial buildings. Water utilities often snub rainwater harvest because it eats into their sales, but if they embrace it as a cheaper alternative to building new pipes or reservoirs and incorporate it into a new service model, it becomes a win-win option for a community.  St. Paul MN did exactly that when it worked with its local watershed district to design a large rainwater harvest system, capturing water from the roof of a city facility which is then used to irrigate a nearby sports arena.  Like any rainwater harvest system, it does double-duty by reducing stormwater runoff.  In this case, the groundskeepers are especially happy because the turf thrives on rainwater – much preferred to city water which has chlorine and fluoride. The added ingredients in city water may help protect human health, but they stunt plants.

In addition to the environmental benefits of these different approaches they have the added advantage of being financially flexible.  The pipeline and pump systems that will be needed for Waukesha’s Lake Michigan diversion – one to supply the water to Waukesha and another to return the clean water to Lake Michigan – have to be built to accommodate the peak demand scenario, even though most days they will operate at lower capacity.  Furthermore if demand decreases, which it’s likely to do because Lake Michigan water will be significantly more expensive than Waukesha’s current supply, the fixed costs and its related debt will remain.

When I describe the Waukesha situation to my colleagues from other regions (experts on water infrastructure and treatment) they just shake their heads, realizing that the city could do so much better for its citizens. Is it too late for Waukesha to look at more flexible, environmentally preferable alternatives, and potentially less expensive alternatives? No.  But it will only happen if the people of Waukesha insist on it.

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