The city of Waukesha has made arrangements to divert water from Lake Michigan.
Waukesha’s current water source, the deep sandstone aquifer, is contaminated with radium. The problem has been worsening over the last decade and a solution had to be found to ensure the safety of the drinking water for Waukesha residents.
The effects of radium contamination can lead to serious chronic health conditions.
Kevin Masarik, Groundwater Education Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, explained the dangers of high radium water consumption.
“Drinking the water once or twice is not going to result in any kind of health complications, but elevated levels of radium over long periods of time would increase the risk of certain types of cancers,” Masarik said.
Unlike the deep well water, Lake Michigan is a freshwater surface source which is known to be lower in radium and is generally of good quality. In addition, it would take significantly less energy to get the water from the lake rather than pumping it from the aquifer.
Switching from the deep wells to Lake Michigan as a water source would mean that the groundwater levels would begin to rise and return to their original levels, allowing the city to tap into the source again over time.
Some concern over Waukesha’s switch to Lake Michigan water is based off the Great Lakes Compact, which states that only communities within the Great Lakes Watershed can utilize the water source. If Waukesha is given a green light to divert Lake Michigan water, that could potentially make it easier for other communities to ask for a similar diversion.
“The concern is that, what is to stop the community like Arizona from putting the pipeline to the Great Lakes?” Masarik said.
Luckily, the Great Lakes Compact protects against significant water shortage by requiring the outside communities to return the water back to the Great Lakes after undergoing treatment to meet the Great Lakes standards.
The mayor of Waukesha, Shawn Reilly, ensures that all of the water can be safely returned.
“The consent decree which required us to fix the problem by June of 2018 has now been extended by another court order until 2023. This allows enough time to build the pipeline and return the water back to Lake Michigan after being fully treated,” Reilly said.
When asked about other potential solutions for the Waukesha water crisis, Reilly explained that tapping into Lake Michigan was by far the most sustainable choice.
“We looked at 13 or 14 different options and compared them to each other before deciding that the Great Lakes water was the only one that was sustainable and reasonable in the long term. The only other option that was feasible was drilling shallow wells, but environmental effects of that would be significant and DNR would not approve of that being done over a long period of time,” Reilly said.
Overall, the solution for the Waukesha water crisis is a good compromise to balance the environmental concerns and the needs of Waukesha for clean water supply. Further conservation efforts can also minimize the amount of water taken from Great Lakes.