Lake Michigan: the Big Sipper, the Deep Blue East, the Gateway to the Other Mitten State, Ol’ Freshy. Whatever you call it, it’s a comforting constant in Milwaukeeans’ lives. We take, we drink, we re-deposit (and we fertilize). But we don’t often give the water itself a second thought.

Just 17 miles west (and thousands of miles right on the political spectrum) lies Waukesha County. A deluge of articles have recently been written about Waukesha’s water woes because the City of Waukesha (with some minor addendum) is out of clean, drinkable water, and it’s looking to tap into the Sea of Michigan to satisfy its thirst.

Waukesha gets the majority of its water from wells, fed from a deep underground aquifer. In fact, this underground source gave Waukesha its historic moniker: Spring City. But decades of pumping without fully replenishing the aquifer has dropped water levels so low that radium and salts levels are becoming more concentrated. As a life-long Lake Michigan water drinker, I can’t even keep their well water down.

Waukesha recently submitted an application to buy Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek, pump it to Waukesha, use it, clean it, and send it back to the Root River (which empties into the Lake). Although it’s only 17 miles, that pipe would cross out of the Great Lakes drainage basin. That’s a big no-no, as any groundwater outside that basin runs away from the lakes instead of replenishing it.

A map of the Great Lakes drainage basin.

A map of the Great Lakes drainage basin taken from the Environment and Climate Change department of Canada’s website. Featured photo of Milwaukee from Lake Michigan by Joe Powell.

In 2008, 8 US states and 2 Canadian provinces signed the Great Lakes Compact to prevent such won-ton distribution of Great Lake water. Waukesha’s application was sent to this body of governors; since Waukesha County straddles the basin border, they have the right to request water from within the basin as long as it’s ultimately returned.

Though it will set an interesting precedent, it looks like the Conference of Great Lakes and St Lawrence Governors and Premiers (the coolest conference name ever) might approve such a request for the first time. The application needs modifications, and even one nay vote shutters the whole idea, but it appears that Waukesha’s mayor is willing to accept the changes to their plan in order to get fresh water flowing.

It’ll be interesting to see how the ruling, regardless of which way it ends up, will affect our region in the future. As fresh water becomes more scarce globally and nationally, the Greatest Lakes will become the cool kids on the bedrock. Let’s see if we’ll let the neighbor kids hang with us.

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