Ten Threats: Demand for Drinking Water Increasing

  • Water diversion is an increasing threat to the Great Lakes. As communities grow so does the demand. (Photo by Brandon Bankston)

We’re continuing the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks at where the demand for water will be greatest:


We’re continuing the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field
guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks
at where the demand for water will be greatest.

Right around the Great Lakes is where there’s going to be more demand
for drinking water. Water officials say as cities and suburbs grow, so
does the need for water. Some towns very near the Great Lakes say they
need lake water right now, but in some cases they might not get it. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:

People who live around the Great Lakes have long used the lakes’ water
for transportation, industry, and drinking water. Most of the water we
use, gets cleaned up and goes back in the lakes.

That’s because the Great Lakes basin is like a bowl. All the water used
by communities inside that bowl returns to the lakes in the form of
groundwater, storm water runoff, and treated wastewater, but recently, thirsty
communities just outside the basin—outside that bowl—have shown an
interest in Great Lakes water.

Dave Dempsey is a Great Lakes advisor to the environmental group
“Clean Water Action.”

“We are going to be seeing all along the fringe areas of the Great Lakes
basin all the way from New York state to Minnesota, communities that
are growing and have difficulty obtaining adequate water from nearby
streams or ground water.”

Treated water from those communities won’t naturally go back to the
basin. Treated wastewater and run-off from communities outside the
Great Lakes basin goes into the Mississippi River system, or rivers in the
east and finally the Atlantic Ocean.

The Great Lakes are not renewable. Anything that’s taken away has to be
returned. For example, when nature takes water through evaporation, it
returns it in the form of rain or melted snow. When cities take it away, it
has to be returned in the form of cleaned-up wastewater to maintain that
careful balance.

Dave Dempsey says the lakes are like a big giant savings account, and
we withdraw and replace only one percent each year.

“So, if we should ever begin to take more than one percent of that
volume on an annual basis for human use or other uses, we’ll begin to
draw them down permanently, we’ll be depleting the bank account.”

Some of the citiesthat want Great Lakes water are only a few miles from
the shoreline. One of the most unique water diversion requests might come
from the City of Waukesha, in southeastern Wisconsin. The city is just 20 miles
from Lake Michigan. Waukesha is close enough to smell the lake, but it
sits outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha needs to find another
water source because it’s current source – wells—are contaminated with

Dan Duchniak is Waukesha’s water manager. He says due to the city’s
unique geology, it’s already using Great Lakes water. He says it taps an
underground aquifer that eventually recharges Lake Michigan.

“Water that would be going to Lake Michigan is now coming from Lake
Michigan…. our aquifer is not contributing to the Great Lakes any more,
it’s pulling away from the Great Lakes.”

Officials from the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec
recently approved a set of rules that will ultimately decide who can use
Great Lakes water. The new rules will allow Waukesha—and some
other communities just outside the basin—to request Great Lakes water,
and drafters say Waukesha will get “extra credit” if it can prove it’s
using Lake Michigan water now.

Environmentalists are still concerned that water taken from the Lakes be
returned directly to the Lakes, but some say even that could be harmful.

Art Brooks is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of
Wisconsin- Milwaukee. He says the water we put back still carries some
bi-products of human waste.

“No treatment plant gets 100 percent of the nutrients out of the water,
and domestic sewage has high concentrations of ammonia and
phosphates. Returning that directly to the lake could enhance the growth
of algae in the lake.”

That pollution could contribute to a growing problem of dead zones in
some areas of the Great Lakes. Brooks and environmentalists concede
that just one or two diversions would not harm the Great Lakes, but they
say one diversion could open the floodgates to several other requests, and
letting a lot of cities tap Great Lakes water could be damaging.

Derek Sheer of the environmental group “Clean Wisconsin” says some
out-of-basin communities have already been allowed to tap Great Lakes
water under the old rules.

“The area just outside of Cleveland–Akron, Ohio– has a diversion
outside of the Great Lakes basin, so they’re utilizing Great Lakes water
but they’re putting it back.”

There are several communities that take Great Lakes water, but they, too,
pump it back. The new water rules still need to be ok-ed by the legislature of
each Great Lakes state, and Congress. Since the rules are considered a
baseline, environmental interests throughout the region say they’ll lobby
for even stricter rules on diversions.

For the GLRC, I’m Christina Shockley..

Related Links

Thirsty City Waits for Water Diversion Law

  • Diversion of water from the Great Lakes is a controversial issue. Many worry that diversion could affect life in the ecosystem. Others worry about obtaining sources of fresh water for drinking. (Photo by Brandon Bankston)

Great Lakes governors and their counterparts in Canada are working on a legal agreement called Annex 2001. The document will determine how water from the Great Lakes will be used and who gets to use it. Controversy has already erupted over the possibility of one city’s bid for the water. The city is looking toward the completed Annex for guidance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:


Great Lakes governors and their counterparts in Canada are working
on a legal agreement called Annex 2001. The document will determine how
water from the Great Lakes will be used and who gets to use it. Controversy
has already erupted over the possibility of one city’s bid for the water.
The city is looking toward the completed Annex for guidance. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:

Dan Duchniak says he’s an environmentalist.

“We have the low-flow showerheads in our house, we have the low-flow faucets, we have the high-efficiency washers and dryers, our kids know about those, you know, they think they’re fun.”

But Duchniak is in the middle of a bitter fight with other environmentalists and officials over his area’s largest natural resource: water from Lake Michigan. Duchniak is the water manager for the City of Waukesha, Wisconsin. It’s just west of Milwaukee. Waukesha is only about 20 miles from the Lake Michigan shore. Right now, Waukesha gets its water from wells that tap an aquifer deep within the ground. But Duchniak says the wells won’t sustain the long-term needs of the city.

“As the water levels drop, the water quality degrades, and what happens is we’ve seen an increase in different water quality parameters, one of those being radium.”

And radium is a health problem. In very high doses, radium can cause bone cancer. To solve its water problems, the City of Waukesha might ask for access to Lake Michigan water. But even though the community considers the lake part of its back yard, there’s a major problem. Even though it’s close, Waukesha sits outside the Great Lakes basin.

That means the area’s ditches and streams drain away from the lake. Rain water runoff and treated water from the sewer system flow toward the Mississippi River Basin. The governors and premiers might include a rule in the Annex 2001 that says communities sitting outside the Great Lakes basin must return treated water to the lake, if they use it.

Engineers who study water in the area say Waukesha could make the case that the city is already using Great Lakes water. That’s because the city’s wells tap into water beneath the surface that supply water to Lake Michigan. But environmentalists say that argument isn’t going to fly. Derek Sheer is with the environmental group “Clean Wisconsin.” He says Waukesha would be pumping a lot more water directly from the lake than the underground aquifer would replace.

“They’re not returning 13 million gallons of water back to the Great Lakes by any stretch of the imagination.”

But the city of Waukesha knows that if the finalized Annex 2001 looks anything like the early drafts, the city would have to return most of the water it uses back to the lake. Waukesha’s water manager, Dan Duchniak says that could be done in a combination of ways. The city could pump it back to the lake, pump it to a nearby stream that flows to the lake, or stop using the ground water completely and let it flow back to the lake.

People on both sides of the water issue seem to agree on one thing: because of the huge amount of water in the Great Lakes system, and its natural ebb and flow, the amount of water the City of Waukesha would take would not harm the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. Even if it’s not pumped back.

Art Brooks is a professor at the Center for Great Lakes Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“The amount of water they intend to withdraw would probably lower the level of Lake Michigan on the order of a millimeter or so, probably less that five millimeters per year.”

But it’s not just Waukesha that has environmentalists worried. Professor Brooks and environmentalist Derek Sheer say if Waukesha gains access to Great Lakes water, it could set a dangerous precedent. Sheer doesn’t want other states and countries to start withdrawing Great Lakes water.

“If Waukesha and Arizona and Georgia and all these other places start pumping large amounts of water out of the basin, we could see a dramatic lowering of the water in the lakes.”

The city of Waukesha says it needs the water and would abide by whatever the Annex 2001 agreement sets down. And Waukesha’s water manager, Dan Duchniak, says that includes what it determines about return flow. He says arguing about the issue right now is a waste of time, since the Annex isn’t done. Beyond that, Duchniak says Waukesha is part of the Great Lakes system, and is not about to suck the lakes dry.

“Lake Michigan is in our back yard. We can see Lake Michigan from here. We’re not that far away from it.”

The experts say Waukesha would only be the first in line to ask for Great Lakes water. With suburbs sprawling away from the big cities on the lakes more and more towns will be eyeing the Great Lakes when demand for water exceeds their underground supplies.

A draft of the Annex could be ready this year, but it will most likely go through a lengthy series of votes before it becomes law.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Christina Shockley.

Related Links

Radium Girls

It’s not unusual for authors to feel a bond with the people they write about. But that connection is especially strong between a modern-day university professor and a group of working class women in the early 1900’s. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson has more: