Waukesha is set to switch over to Lake Michigan water next week, making history in the process

NOW: Waukesha is set to switch over to Lake Michigan water next week, making history in the process

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The sound of beeps and clanks filled the new water pumping station here Tuesday, where workers were making the final connections and doing their final rounds of testing before Waukesha can have its long-awaited new source of drinking water.

The Waukesha Water Utility is targeting Sept. 14 as the day it switches over to receiving water from Lake Michigan. The official conversion will mark the end of a process that has spanned about two decades, and it'll make history in the process.

Waukesha will become the first community outside of the Great Lakes Basin to successfully apply for a diversion under the Great Lakes Compact, which took effect in 2008.

Under the compact, there's a ban on new diversions to places outside the basin, but communities can apply if they're in a county that straddles the basin. Waukesha was able to apply under that exception, but it was still an uphill climb.

Dan Duchniak, the water utility's general manager, said Waukesha first applied for a diversion of Lake Michigan water in 2010. That application was rejected, and the city had to rework its application to get the approval of all eight governors whose states border the Great Lakes, as well as the premiers of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. 

In order to even reach that stage, Waukesha needed approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR.)

"It was an intense process," Duchniak said. "The DNR put us through the wringer, but they needed to, because that justified our application."

Waukesha's second application under the compact was approved in 2016. The following year, Waukesha reached an agreement with the city of Milwaukee to receive treated water.

Under that deal, Duchniak said Waukesha will pay Milwaukee $3.5 million per year to get water from Lake Michigan. That number could go up to $4.8 million depending on how much water Waukesha uses. Currently, Duchniak estimates Waukesha will receive about six million gallons of water per day. He described the agreement as a win-win for both cities.

"We needed the water for our residents in the city of Waukesha, they needed the money to help address some of the problems they have with their lead [pipe replacement] services and some of the other issues they have in their system," Duchniak said.

Duchniak said a key part of winning over the Great Lakes states and provinces was a commitment to return 100% of the water it uses. Waukesha will pump its wastewater back into Lake Michigan via the Root River, which flows into the lake at Racine. 

Higher costs, initial changes for Waukesha residents

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said ratepayers have already noticed this switch will make water more expensive. Rates have already risen over the course of the $286 million construction project, which laid 35 miles of pipe bringing water in from Milwaukee, then sending wastewater into the Root River.

"In 2016, when the approval happened, I thought that was the end of a very, very long journey," Reilly said. "It's been a long journey since 2016 to get to this point."

Once the switch happens, Reilly estimated water and sewer bills will increase by another $15 per month. Altogether, water and sewer bills will be about 2.5 times more expensive than they were when Waukesha reached the agreement with Milwaukee in 2017.

"There's a couple things. Yes, I understand it costs more. Two, we didn't have any other option," Reilly said. "No matter what we did, we had to get a new water supply, and in order to do that, you're talking hundreds of millions of dollars."

Waukesha was under a court order to find a new water source because of elevated levels of radium, a known carcinogen. Duchniak said the aquifer Waukesha has long used was becoming depleted, too. 

Duchniak said he hopes the changeover happens no later than Sept. 18. When Lake Michigan water starts flowing into Waukesha homes and businesses, he said people will notice some initial changes.

For the first day or two, the water might be red as sediment along the pipeline is flushed out. Reilly said if people do laundry during that period and their clothes get a reddish stain, they should run additional washer cycles until the water is clear. 

If they dry their clothes with the stains, they'll ruin the clothes. Duchniak said people who own aquariums should also consult with a pet store about what changes they should make. 

He added people may notice the water has a scent of chlorine that lasts for about three weeks. He said the water will be safe, even if it looks and smells strange at first.

"Don't take that as what Great Lakes water is going to be," Duchniak said. "Give it a month. Give it two months 'til everything settles down, and then you'll see what Great Lakes water has to offer."

Environmental groups watching closely 

Cheryl Nenn from Milwaukee Riverkeeper said she was encouraged by Waukesha's commitment to return the same amount of water it pulls from Lake Michigan.

At the same time, she said she had reservations about what will happen once the city starts pumping six million gallons of treated wastewater into the Root River every day.

"We still have long-term questions about the impact of this wastewater to the Root River," Nenn said. "And whether that wastewater will cause a negative impact to the biology, the critters living in the creek, or the actual health of the river."

Duchniak said the city has been testing water quality in the Root River for the past five years. Under the water diversion agreement, Waukesha will continue to test river samples for 10 years after it begins discharging wastewater there.

"So now, we'll be able to compare before and after," he said. "And we'll be able to prove that we've had a positive impact on the Root River."

Nenn said she also was concerned the new costs could make a life essential too costly for working class homeowners in Waukesha. Duchniak said many of those costs should be offset by residents no longer needing water softeners, since Great Lakes water is considerably less harsh than the groundwater in south central Wisconsin. 

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