Great Lakes environmental groups looking over Waukesha today – Quest for clean water turns attention to Root River

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Ground Water News, Health effects, Water Contamination
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Article courtesy of Don Behm | October 17, 2012 | Journal Sentinel | Shared as educational material only

Waukesha — Ten representatives of environmental and conservation groups from six other Great Lakes states are touring Waukesha by bus this afternoon to get a first hand look at the city.

They will meet with Waukesha Water Utility officials and consultants at mid-afternoon as part of a two-day tour aimed at a better understanding of Waukesha’s need for Great Lakes water.

On Thursday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will speak to the group before the bus departs to drive through Oak Creek, a possible supplier of lake water to Waukesha.

The Waukesha and Oak Creek common councils approved a letter of intent for a water deal earlier this month but Oak Creek water utility officials have not signed the document.

Barrett has reminded Waukesha officials of Milwaukee’s willingness to negotiate selling lake water to them only if Waukesha accepts Milwaukee‘s terms. Barrett is demanding that Waukesha distribute lake water only to its current service area and not to any land added in the future.

Waukesha gathered all this attention by asking the eight Great lakes states to approve diverting Lake Michigan water across the sub-continental divide to Waukesha.

Among the questions these out-of-state environmentalists are posing is whether Waukesha has other reasonable and sustainable options for drinking water in its own backyard, short of pumping water from the lake.

“We want to understand the merits of what Waukesha wants to do,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Other out-of-state groups participating in the tour include the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ohio Environmental Council, Save the Dunes of Indiana, Tip of the Mitt in Michigan, Environmental Advocates of New York and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

They are joined Wednesday by a dozen or so members of local and state organizations — Milwaukee Riverkeeper, River Alliance, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Clean Wisconsin and Root-Pike Watershed Initiative — as they get a first hand look at the landscape and learn about the city’s use of wells for drinking water.

Should the diversion request be approved, the city would stop using its deep wells drawing radium-contaminated water from a sandstone aquifer. In its bid for lake water, Waukesha officials have decided that other local sources, including a few dozen more shallow wells or the Fox River, would not provide a sustainable supply for the future.

The state Department of Natural Resources is reviewing the city’s request. The DNR must determine the diversion request complies with a Great Lakes protection compact before it can be forwarded to the other seven states for approval.

Waukesha is the first community located outside the Great Lakes drainage basin to seek an exception to the compact’s general prohibition against diversions. The exception it seeks is available to communites outside the basin only if they are within counties straddling the sub-continental divide.

Waukesha County straddles the line between the Lake Michigan drainage basin and the Mississippi River watershed.

DNR vetting of the proposal could be completed early next year.

Environmental and conservation groups from Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York participating in the tour want to be prepared to comment on the request when it goes to the other states for review, Smith said.

“This tour is not about saying no to the diversion,” he said. “It’s about this request complying with the compact.”

“This request will set a precedent and we are making sure it follows the rules,” Smith said.

For communities seeking a diversion, the compact requires that nearly all of the water be returned to the lakes in the form of treated wastewater.

In its application, Waukesha prefers to route a discharge pipe to Underwood Creek in Brookfield. The creek is a tributary of the Menomonee River.

The DNR has asked Waukesha to complete a detailed analysis of the impact of the discharge to the Root River if the department decides that is a better option.

For that reason, the bus tour will be drive to Racine County Thursday after a look at Oak Creek.

The group will observe the Root River Parkway and stop along the river.

Previous article Vol IV #305 October 9th. 2012
[toggle title=”Quest for clean water turns attention to Root River” height=”auto”]

Waukesha’s evolving quest for clean water turns attention to Root River.

Susan Bence @ WUWM NEWS
photo by Liz-ONBC

News – last week – that Oak Creek is willing to share its Great Lakes tap with Waukesha, has brought new twists to the debate.

Waukesha needs a clean source of water by 2018, to replace its radium-tainted underground supply. Issues the proposed agreement has raised, include the pathway Waukesha would use to return treated wastewater to Lake Michigan.

Under the tentative deal, the vehicle would be the Root River. WUWM dips into a conversation with a group formed to protect the river.


As far as Susan Greenfield is concerned, news that Waukesha might return treated wastewater via the Root River – could not come at a worse time.

She’s executive director of a grassroots group called Root Pike WIN. It emerged through a DNR push in 2000 to protect watersheds, and has since been drafting a comprehensive plan – along with a collection of other agencies- to restore the river.

“So there are studies underway, water quality monitoring, in some cases, in locations on the river that have never been monitored before,” Greenfield says. After years of work, Greenfield says the plan is five meetings shy of implementation.

“What the study is doing is going to help us identify what the most serious problems are so that we can really target the efforts throughout the Root River,” Greenfield says.

We’re standing midway along the rivers’ meandering course – off Hwy 38 on 5 Mile Road. “It’s a great place to throw in a kayak or a canoe and just head down the river,” Greenfield says. The watershed embraces 117 miles of streams connecting portions of Waukesha, Milwaukee and Racine counties.

The Root River spills into Lake Michigan in Racine’s downtown harbor. Just like other waterways in the region, Greenfield says farming and development have altered its original character.

“Suffering from a great deal of polluted storm water run-off – we need to do a better job now managing now what we call nonpoint pollution,” Greenfield says. What Greenfield says she has also seen, are communities working quietly to alter their storm water impacts on the river.

“Racine County conservationist has been working for years working with farmers to put in buffers and other practices that reduce the runoff coming off of farmland. We just need more of it,” Greenfield says.

On the urban side, she sites modification the Village of Greendale has made to a major thoroughfare. “Grange Avenue was rebuilt with essential rain gardens going down the middle of it and the road was built to slope toward that,” Greenfield says.

And the upcoming completion of a “car park” in Franklin. “ Milwaukee County will be building a parking lot that’s porous pavement at the sports complex very near the river and point of that of course is to infiltrate water and keep it from running off the parking lot and carrying pollutants into the river,” Greenfield says.

Greenfield believes the trick to maintaining momentum hinges on “perception.”

“The river is in fact cleaner, but also people’s perception of the river has changed when they see it as an important artery in our community,” Greenfield says. The river advocate fears residents could lose heart, if Waukesha receives the green light to use the river to return up to 11 million gallons of treated water water a day on its return trip to Lake Michigan.

“ I personally don’t think it should be returned through a natural waterway at all, but my board of directors has not taken a stand one way or another. They want to see what the environmental impact study says and I think that’s probably a good thing for all of us to do and to be engaged in the public meetings that will take place and make sure that there’s good science and good data being used to make a recommendation,” Greenfield says.

For instance, Greenfield wants evidence to support recent assertions that more water in the Root River would improve its quality.

“You know we’re seeing big changes really in precipitation in this region – we’re getting wetter; we’re having more severe storms, so that needs to be factored into the environment impact study. And certainly when they have public hearings is something I will want to make sure is factored in,” Greenfield says. She admits this would not be the first time a water utility would pour its wastewater into a river. So she’s keen to dig into case studies from opther places where it’s happening.

“Tell us about those other rivers and how that turned out because we’re talking about an 80 year agreement,” Greenfield says. Greenfield says she’d like to think Wisconsin can learn lessons, before making a final decision on Waukesha’s water plans.

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