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Wisconsin city's water request gets chilly reception in Duluth

A request by a Wisconsin city to draw 10.1 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan received a skeptical reception in Duluth on Thursday. Officials in Waukesha, a city of about 70,000 people just west of Milwaukee, say that the city's we...

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A request by a Wisconsin city to draw 10.1 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan received a skeptical reception in Duluth on Thursday.

Officials in Waukesha, a city of about 70,000 people just west of Milwaukee, say that the city's wells are contaminated with toxic radium. To provide safe drinking water, they say, they need an exemption to rules barring the tapping of Great Lakes water by communities outside the watershed.

But speakers during a Duluth listening session questioned whether Waukesha has done enough to clean its water of radium, or if it has exhausted all the alternatives. Some speakers at the Thursday night hearing, held in a full conference room at the downtown Holiday Inn, charged that Waukesha's aim of increasing development was fueling its desire to tap into Lake Michigan.

Ultimately, Minnesota and other Great Lakes states agreeing to the diversion would set a precedent allowing other communities outside the Great Lakes watershed to begin diverting water from the big lakes - at a time when the lakes need protection due to the pressures of climate change, speakers said.

The request is the first test of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact - a binding treaty among the Great Lakes states approved in 2008 that largely bars large-scale export of Great Lakes water outside the watershed.

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Waukesha is just 17 miles from Lake Michigan but falls in the Mississippi River watershed - but it's allowed to at least apply to draw Lake Michigan water because Waukesha County is on the Lake Michigan watershed line. Such an applications requires the approval of the governors of all Great Lakes states.

Minnesota Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, who was the chief author of the compact legislation in Minnesota, said Thursday that Waukesha's application doesn't meet the compact's "narrow exemption" for communities bordering the watershed.

However, Waukesha Water Utility's general manager, Don Duchniak, speaking before a public comment period, refuted such statements, saying the city's water problems go beyond the radium levels. After reviewing all alternatives, the Lake Michigan diversion is the only possibility, he said, also noting that all the water pumped from Lake Michigan eventually will be cleaned and returned to to the lake via the Root River.

Comparing the amount of daily water Waukesha is requesting to the entirety of Lake Michigan, Duchniak said it's "about a teaspoon of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool and then we're taking that teaspoon and putting it right back into the swimming pool."

However, Wisconsin Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, expressed concerned about the impact the additional water in the Root River would have on Racine, Wis., through which the river flows.

Waukesha is under a 2009 court order to reduce its radium levels to the federal standard for safe drinking water. Its radium levels are three times the federal limit, Duchniak said.

"Contrary to popular belief, we're not doing this because we want to do it. We're doing this because we have to do it," he said.

Those speaking at the listening session, however, disputed Duchniak's comments. More than 76 Wisconsin communities, including at least one using the same water source as Waukesha, are successfully treating their drinking water for radium contamination, Milroy said.

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"Waukesha refuses to make a good-faith effort to treat its permanent water supply so right there, that violates one of the tenets of the compact," Milroy said.

Waukesha has refused to comply with water standards for decades, said Laurie Longtine, a Waukesha resident who grew up in Superior.

"For decades, Waukesha engaged in a legal battle with the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to avoid complying with the radium standard," she said. "Its newfound concern for the health and wellbeing of its residents seems a little too convenient."

Waukesha isn't asking for the water to fuel development, Duchniak said, pointing out that 85 percent of Waukesha already is developed. Its water service area is required by the state and it provides water to neighboring communities because of water quality issues, he said.

No one spoke in favor of letting Waukesha divert the water during the listening session, held by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the comments made Thursday will be used to inform Gov. Mark Dayton. Just one Great Lakes governor opposing it will derail Waukesha's application.

While Thursday's comments will only go to Dayton, residents can have their comments considered by the compact conference by emailing them to comments@waukeshadiversion.org by March 14.

Related Topics: LAKE SUPERIORENVIRONMENT
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