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Waukesha Full Speed Ahead As Mayors Fight Great Lakes Water Diversion

Susan Bence
Oak Creek Treatment Plant

A Wisconsin town is getting a lot of attention these days -- on the issue of drinking water.

Waukesha lies outside the Great Lakes basin, but it has received permission to take water from Lake Michigan. Officials are still debating the political and financial impact – and a group of mayors is challenging the town’s action.

Meanwhile, Waukesha is moving full speed ahead.  

Giant paddles rotate slowly through water that just entered a treatment facility from a pipe that stretches a mile-and-a-half into Lake Michigan.

Manager Michael Sullivan says this is the first step in removing sediment and other particles from the water. “What we did was add our coagulant and then we have paddlewheels that are mixing the coagulant with the water.”

The treatment facility is owned by nearby Oak Creek – that’s where Waukesha plans to purchase water. Sullivan says that’s a good deal for Oak Creek residents.

“We’re projecting a 20 percent rate reduction for Oak Creek,” he says.  “So, not profit-motivated, but that’s a huge motivation for us – that we can keep our rates down for our customers.”

Waukesha needs water because its wells are contaminated with radium. It got the OK to access Lake Michigan because of that problem – and because it’s in a county that straddles the Great Lakes basin.

Some 30 miles west, Waukesha superintendent Jeff Harenda doesn’t even utter the word “wastewater”, as he shows off his Clean Water Plant. Over his 25 year career, Harenda says he’s orchestrated two major upgrades. On was a UV disinfection system to tackle bacteria. The other is this 84-foot-tall biodigester, that removes pathogens from the sludge that remains after treatment.

“It’s kind of neat to be standing underneath this thing,” he says. “There’s 1.1 million gallons of solids over your head. …

“And the majority of our volatile solids reduction is happening right here in this first vessel.  By the time it goes by gravity to the second digester we’re getting very little solids reduction in that tank – this thing is doing all the work right now.”

From the Clean Water Plant, the water will be piped into the Root River. It meanders and ultimately empties into Lake Michigan in downtown Racine.

Mayor John Dickert is one of the biggest opponents of the Waukesha plan. He says it threatens Racine’s most popular tourist attraction.

North Beach was once a polluted eyesore, today it’s rated as one of the best around.

“So now you’re going to impact my beach … which brings in, just one event alone in the summer, our triathlon, brings in $3-to-$5 million to my beach,” he says. “And I have roughly on a good summer 200,000 people swimming on a beach in a city of 80,000.”

Waukesha will be required to monitor its impact on the Root River system, yet Dickert remains dissatisfied. “So what I need to know is who’s paying for it and who’s doing it because I want an independent body or our people doing it because I want to know that the results are accurate.”

Dickert is part of a group of over 120 U.S. and Canadian mayors asking for Waukesha’s diversion request to be reconsidered.

Waukesha Water Utility general manager Dan Duchniak is confident the decision will hold. He says engineers are designing the path Waukesha’s pipelines will follow.

The city spent more than five years and $5 million to reach this point. Duchniak estimates the project will cost at least $206 million.

He says, “We are confident that they’ve done everything responsibly and the decision was made in an open, transparent forum, with all of the information available to everyone, and we are full speed ahead.”

At least for now.

Opponents have been a promised another hearing by the Great Lakes states, which allowed Waukesha access to Lake Michigan. The hearing could come as soon as Feb. 6. 

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.