The Herald Bulletin

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October 8, 2013

Not far from Lake Michigan, city yearns for water



Waukesha's leaders say the city's future depends on tapping the lake.

"It doesn't make sense to locate a business in a place that doesn't have safe drinking water," said Brian Nemoir of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

What separates the haves from the have-nots is a curving watershed boundary that encircles the five inland seas, edging almost to their shores in some places and more than 100 miles away in others. Hard-luck Waukesha is a scant 1.5 miles west of it, in the Mississippi River drainage basin.

But because it's in a county that straddles the line, Waukesha could qualify for an exception, according to the region's water use rules. The challenge is convincing the states.

Waukesha is a bustling community that's home to several small colleges and large manufacturers including medical equipment maker GE Healthcare. Its tree-lined downtown sidewalks run past a pleasant mix of restaurants, taverns and shops, some with painted murals celebrating electric guitar pioneer and native son Les Paul.

Years ago, its mineral-rich springs drew streams of visitors — former President Ulysses Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln among them — in search of their reputed healing powers. A plot to pipe Waukesha water to Chicago for the 1893 world's fair was foiled when outraged locals repelled a trainload of laborers.

But development and pumping took their toll.

Under a federal order to find a new source, the city is applying to use 10.1 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan. A veto by just one of the eight states would scuttle the request.

Waukesha also could draw from the Fox River, which flows through town, but that would damage wetlands, and the river's flow is unreliable, said Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. Other options, including desalination, would be hugely expensive.

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