RACINE — With the approval of its request for Lake Michigan water cemented last month by the Great Lakes Compact Council, the City of Waukesha is hoping to ease Racinians’ concerns about the upcoming diversion.
Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak and the city’s mayor, Shawn Reilly, met with The Journal Times Editorial Board on Monday to, in their words, help clear up some misconceptions about the diversion plan and the impacts it will and will not have on the lake and the Root River.
The main message Duchniak and Reilly have for Racine residents and others in Racine County who use the Root River, or live along it, is this: The treated wastewater Waukesha plans to send down the Root will only serve to help the river.
“We actually have a letter from the (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) fisheries that says they are for this project because it could add 100,000 angling hours,” Duchniak said.
According to a handout produced by Waukesha officials, the 8.2 million gallons of treated wastewater the city plans to discharge to the Root on a daily basis won’t have PCBs, and will lower the concentration of phosphorus and suspended solids currently in the river.
Waukesha is currently monitoring the river’s water quality to get a baseline for any contaminants currently in the river, Duchniak added.
“We have to meet a standard that is called fishable and swimmable,” he said. “Our wastewater must be treated to a level that is actually higher than Racine, or Milwaukee or Kenosha.”
Sending that extra water down the Root won’t result in flooding, either, Duchniak said. The practice is expected to add about 5 inches to the river during low flows, and about an eighth of an inch during a 100-year storm event.
“It will help tremendously during low flows and it won’t hurt during high flows,” Reilly said.
The officials also note that 97 percent of wastewater treatment plants in the Great Lakes region discharge their treated wastewater to rivers, streams and creeks, as opposed to discharging directly to a lake or bay, as the Racine Wastewater Utility does. For example, the City of Burlington and the Rochester-based Western Racine County Sewage District discharge treated water into the Fox River.
Dickert weighs in
Racine Mayor John Dickert, who is poised to resign this summer to become the next executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, doesn’t want to see any treated wastewater entering the Root.
“It still doesn’t mean it’s good for the stream,” Dickert said Friday. “Dilution is not an answer.”
Asked why Racine had considered providing Waukesha with Lake Michigan water in 2012, Dickert said he looked into the option because he “is always willing to explore opportunities” to sell water to help Racine Water Utility ratepayers.
He changed his mind, he said, after he learned more about the impact Waukesha’s diversion would have and about the opportunities he said the City of Waukesha still has to treat its radium contaminated water.
The Waukesha Water Utility currently supplies water to its customers by drawing it from a deep aquifer, or ground water supply. That aquifer, in addition to being depleted, has continued to exceed the federal standard for radium. A naturally occurring metal common in groundwater, lifetime exposure to radium increases the risk of cancer.
Hundreds of communities in eastern Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana currently receive water from Lake Michigan.
And, with the exception of communities in Illinois, all communities that do must lie within the Great Lakes Basin.
The only exception to the rule, which was established by the Great Lakes Compact Council following its formation in 2008, allows for communities that straddle the basin, or in counties that straddle the basin, to apply for Lake Michigan water, but those communities must prove that there is no other reasonable water supply available. Waukesha County straddles the basin, but the City of Waukesha is located about 1.5 miles outside of it.
Chicago doesn’t return water to the Great Lakes. According to a 2016 Chicago Tribune article, the city fended off challenges to its 1900 diversion plan from Lake Michigan and under a 1967 Supreme Court decree draws up to 2.1 billion gallons a day while discharging treated sewage into waterways that drain toward the Mississippi.
Dozens of Chicago suburbs, including communities more than 30 miles away from the lakeshore, get Lake Michigan water, many of them buying it directly from Chicago. But even under the more relaxed guidelines governing Illinois, new requests for Lake Michigan water in the state have been few and far between in recent years.
For the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is contemplating legal action to stop the diversion, the concern lies not in the Compact itself but how its guidelines were applied in the approving of Waukesha’s request, the nonprofit’s current executive director, David Ulrich, said.
Since the exception allowing communities in countyies that straddle the Great Lakes basin could potentially allow for hundreds of communities to request Great Lakes water, making sure applicants truly meet the requirements of the compact is critical, Ulrich said.
“We have to meet a standard that is called fishable and swimmable. Our wastewater must be treated to a level that is actually higher than Racine, or Milwaukee, or Kenosha.”
— Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility general manager
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