WAUKESHA, Wis. - While visiting the lovely state of Wisconsin earlier this month, I learned the battle over Waukesha's future water supply isn't just about the 8.2 million gallons a day of treated Lake Michigan water that Waukesha wants to start buying from nearby Oak Creek, Wis., within a few years.
To the city of Racine, it's also about the quality of 8.2 million gallons a day of treated wastewater, or effluent, Waukesha plans to put into the Root River to make up for what is taken from the lake on its behalf.
For a detailed overview, see this article I had in Monday's paper that explains why Waukesha - the hometown of rock 'n' roll guitar pioneer Les Paul - has become the battleground for one of North America's fiercest water wars.
"The danger's coming down the Root River." - Racine Mayor John Dickert. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
What most people outside of Wisconsin apparently don't know is that this landmark case is as much a battle about sewage and perceived risks from it as anything.
Racine doesn't want Waukesha's sewage coming into its community, no matter what assurances are made.
In a nutshell, the situation is this: Waukesha has naturally occurring radium in its groundwater. It is under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve uncertainty over its future water supply.
Besides radium, there are too many salts and minerals and a potentially toxic stew of arsenic, fly ash, chloride, and other pollutants in the city's groundwater.
The situation is apparently manageable in the short term.
But it is expected to worsen in the coming years because of a shale barrier that's 150 feet deep and - in the eyes of Waukesha officials - preventing its aquifer from recharging, although some critics dispute that claim.
The Root River. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
Regardless, Waukesha predictably became the first city to test the historic water-withdrawal agreement known as the landmark Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, securing a highly controversial permit last June to withdraw 8.2 million gallons a day and return the same amount.
That permit was approved by the eight Great Lakes governors, but is now being challenged by the Chicago-based Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which represents 127 U.S. and Canadian cities.
Anyone from neighborhood activists to well-funded, highly organized environmental groups have challenged the permit on the grounds it sets a bad precedent and could lead to more siphoning off the lakes, which the compact was written to prevent. The compact allows exemptions for distressed, near-basin communities such as Waukesha, though.
Such opponents are unconvinced by Waukesha's assertion that, in the context of the six quadrillion gallons in the Great Lakes at any given time, removing 8.2 million gallons a day is roughly the equivalent of taking a teaspoon of water out of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And, as Waukesha notes, it will be returning the same volume in the form of effluent.
Waukesha vows not to discharge effluent with an algae-growing phosphorus level greater than 0.075 parts per million into the Root.
The Root’s phosphorus concentration is typically more than twice that, from .104 ppm in the spring to .554 ppm in the summer, according to figures provided by John Skalbeck, a University of Wisconsin-Parkside geosciences professor.
“It will improve the Root River water quality,” Skalbeck said.
Jeff Harenda, Waukesha Clean Water Plant (sewage treatment plant) superintendent said Racine should not worry. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
But what's received a lot less attention outside of Wisconsin has been Racine's fear of what could happen to its community and its economy, especially if the plan backfires and ruins its nationally known beach.
“The danger’s coming down the Root River,” Racine Mayor John Dickert told a roomful of journalists during a Jan. 6 discussion organized by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.
Racine’s North Beach has been rated by national publications as one of America’s best freshwater beaches. Any threat to it is a threat to Racine’s economy, the mayor said.
He and David Ullrich, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative executive director, said phosphorus numbers don’t tell the whole story.
They fear Waukesha’s plan is too much of gamble, pointing out how sewage treatment plants aren’t designed to remove viruses, plastic microbeads, or pharmaceuticals.
Waukesha is taking additional steps toward eliminating pathogens through aeration and ultraviolet technology, according to Jeff Harenda, the city’s sewage treatment plant superintendent, who vows the effluent going into the Root River will improve that stream.
David Ullrich of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative: His group is challenging Waukesha's permit. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
“We are very proud of our plant. We are very proud of the quality of water we put out from our plant,” Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility general manager, said.
The healthcare industry is in the process of phasing out microbeads they have used in toothpaste, soaps, and other healthcare products. Legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama a year ago this month requires products to be made without them as of this July 1, and for sales to cease by July 1, 2018.
But pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets and sinks - and excreted by humans - aren’t removed by sewage treatment plants, either.
“All I know is my people are afraid,” Mayor Dickert said. “This beach is our No. 1 tourist attraction.”
Ullrich said his coalition’s challenge “isn’t about undermining the compact.”
“It’s about strengthening the compact,” Ullrich said. “We believe a mistake was made by approving the diversion. We’ve got nothing against Waukesha. It really is all about the Great Lakes. It really is all about the compact.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which reviewed Waukesha’s application for five years before recommending the compact council approve it, acknowledged the flow will likely result in some sort of change - but not necessarily one that fouls the river.
Some officials believe additional water will help the fishery, not hurt it. The Root River at times has water levels too low for salmon and trout.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
Waukesha’s a city of 71,000 people with unique charm and history.
Its downtown features an eclectic mix of newer coffee shops and restaurants run by entrepreneurs who have preserved much of the town’s historic charm and fabric.
Club 400, a tavern on the National Register of Historic Places, featured regular shows in the 1930s by the legendary Les Paul, a musician best known for inventing one of rock’s most popular guitars.
Originally opened in 1894 as a hotel, Club 400 - named after a train that made regular stops at a depot across the street - got new life as a nightclub in 1948 when it was reopened by Mr. Paul’s father and brother, George and Ralph Polfuss.
One of downtown’s anchors is the Clarke Hotel, a remodeled building from the 1800s that has a warm, European atmosphere. The drink menu of the hotel’s Irish pub has a variation of Irish coffee called “The Peggy,” in honor of Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly’s mother, an 83-year-old dyed-in-the-wood Celt with a big smile who makes no apologies for enjoying an occasional nightcap.
In its 8,000-page application submitted in 2010, Waukesha sought 10.1 million gallons a day from Oak Creek. The approved flow 8.2 million gallons a day is about 20 percent less.
“It’s important to realize there’s this big picture lesson to be learned about water and sustainability.” - Peter Annin of Northland College. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
The dispute comes when at least 800 million of Earth’s 7.5 billion people lack access to clean water, at least 2 million of whom die annually from unhealthy water or sewage sanitation, Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars and co-director of Northland College’s Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, said.
By 2025, two-thirds of the world could be mired in some sort of water shortage, he said.
“The Great Lakes and the rest of the world are entering an era of water tension,” Annin said.
He noted that the Illinois diversion at Chicago, created decades ago to move sewage effluent away from the city toward St. Louis, permanently lowers the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron by 2.5 inches. That diversion has been set at 2.1 billion gallons a day since the 1960s by the Supreme Court.
“Water is the lifeblood of the economy and society,” Annin said.
Waukesha is the first test of the Great Lakes compact that required approval from all eight Great Lakes governors, but it is not the first community straddling the basin to get Lake Michigan water.
In 2009, former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle approved an application from New Berlin, Wis., to divert 2.4 million gallons a day there.
Doyle had the power to do that alone because about a third of New Berlin is inside the basin, Annin said.
Annin’s research includes travel to the Aral Sea, considered one of the world’s greatest engineering disasters because Russia got too aggressive with multiple diversions. Only a portion of what was once one of the world’s largest lakes remains.
“It’s important to realize there’s this big picture lesson to be learned about water and sustainability,” Annin said.
Piping inside the Oak Creek water treatment plant. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
Mike Sullivan, Oak Creek Water and Sewer Utility general manager. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
The water tower at Oak Creek's water treatment plant. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
Part of the Waukesha Clean Water Plant, aka sewage treatment plant. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY