Saturday, October 6, 2007

Blockbuster Waukesha Water Report Ignored By Milwaukee Media

A report prepared for the Town of Waukesha by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hydrologist says significant problems could occur if groundwater close to the Vernon Marsh is pumped for export to the neighboring City of Waukesha - - but the report, which implicates water issues across southeastern Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes, has received coverage only in the Waukesha Freeman.

That's unfortunate, because if the City of Waukesha is unable to obtain water in the Town of Waukesha - -- and the report to the Town lays out substantial consequences if the water export is permitted, or is done without extensive protections and agreements - - then the City may work instead even more aggressively for a pipeline to Lake Michigan.

That could create political and legal problems with other Great Lakes states, where an unratified agreement setting up rules and standards for diversions of Great Lakes water is bogged down in controversy and inertia - - including in the Wisconsin legislature.

(The lack of coverage about the content and significance of the report for the Town is at least the second time that major and relevant documentation about water issues facing southeastern Wisconsin has not made it into mainstream media.

Since December, 2006, there has been no coverage (except on this blog: one example of several postings is here) of a detailed Wisconsin Attorney General's opinion on Great Lakes diversions. The opinion tells the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that it does not have the authority to approve a diversion to the Cities of New Berlin and Waukesha that are outside the Great Lakes basin without the approval of all eight Great Lakes states' governors.)

Prof. Douglas Cherkauer, a renown expert on groundwater, produced the water report as a consultant for the Town. It wanted an examination of the City of Waukesha's plan to condemn a 43-acre parcel in the adjoining Town to obtain well sites for a new City source of drinking water.

Among Cherkauer's findings:

1. Using available data - - (Cherkauer also noted the absence of important information for continuing analyses) - - the report finds that water levels in Town wells and in the Vernon Marsh could drop substantially if the City's new high-capacity wells became operational. A portion of the marsh could cease to function as a wetland, Cherkauer suggests.

2. The pumping could change the way surface and groundwater interact in the area. That means that discharged wastewater from the city's treatment plant could end up flowing into the underground water and introducing contaminates.

3. Cherkauer says that "real future problems could develop," underscoring, I think, the need for both cautious, detailed scientific and inter-governmental action and much better continuing reporting of these issues to the public.

Though it is a bit lengthy, here is the executive summary of Cherkauer's very readable report, dated September 17th, 2007. I have highlighted portions, in boldface.

When I get a link to the entire report, I will post it, though I have appended at the end two short sections indicating the breadth of problems that Cherkauer's report pinpoints:

"The City of Waukesha is considering the possibility of constructing a high capacity well or wells in the shallow aquifer beneath the Lathers property in the Town of Waukesha.

"They would extract an unknown amount of water (estimated to be between 1.5 and 3 million gallons per day or mgd) from the same aquifer used be nearby private well owners as their sole source of supply.

"The pumping will cause water level drawdowns and will alter the exchange of water between the shallow aquifer and nearby surface water bodies, most notably the Fox River and Vernon Marsh.

"Before such a project goes forward, a full assessment is needed of what the sustainable supply at this site is and what the impacts of the extraction will be. An analysis should also be undertaken of all available water supply alternatives for Waukesha to determine if this one is the best.

"This report presents an interpretation of the ground water conditions at the site based on the available information.

"The property lies above a bedrock valley filled with glacial sediments consisting of alternating and interwoven sand and gravel aquifer units and clay-rich barrier or aquitard units.

"It appears likely that the aquifer material extends underneath both the Fox River and the Vernon Marsh and that the unit to be tapped by the proposed well(s) is essentially the same aquifer used by nearby households.

"Within a year, drawdowns could be as much as 10 feet under the river and marsh. After 15 years, drawdowns could range from 20 to 25 feet at the nearest private wells, and from 33 to 38 feet at the river and the marsh.

"This indicates a very real probability that there will be significant impacts to private wells and northern portions of the Vernon Marsh complex which need to be fully assessed before the project proceeds.

"Effects on flow in the Fox River are not a concern, but the well could reverse ground water flow and draw river water into the aquifer, possibly altering aquifer water quality.

"These conditions suggest real future problems may develop. Three steps need to be taken to safeguard both the Town of Waukesha’s residents and their water resources:

"1. Monitor water levels regularly,
2. Expand on existing information, and
3. Establish an agreement with the City that, if they do proceed with wells at the site, they will fix problems they cause.

"Monitoring is needed to provide a better understanding of the ground water flow system and to allow the quantification of impacts from the proposed wells if they go forward. It should be undertaken as soon as possible.

"A well-designed aquifer test on the site will provide much of the information needed to predict future impacts. Coupling the results with a calibrated flow model will allow a good assessment of the magnitude and extent of the effects of the wells.

"The suggested agreement will be the only protection for homeowners in the Town of Waukesha, short of taking the City to court after a problem occurs.

"Such legal action is slow and acrimonious, while an amicable, cooperative agreement could produce rapid solutions to water supply problems."

Cherkauer, on the staff of UW-M's WATER Institute, is also a member of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's water supply advisory committee. That committee is writing a recommended plan to address several water supply issues in a seven-county region, including Waukesha.

City of Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson has said the City would work out any problems with the Town if the water export plan created them.

That the City billed the Town $2,700 to meet the Town's request for information to help Cherkauer produce his report indicates how rocky is the relationship between the Town and the City - - a not uncommon circumstance between bordering communities in southeastern Wisconsin.

Two final items that I pulled from the full report that should not go unnoticed, which I have labeled "A" and "B." Both touch on past practices.

A. " Well inventory:

"An inventory of all the nearby wells has not been undertaken for this report. Such an inventory will be time consuming and will probably succeed in identifying only a small portion of the wells. A significant number of the well construction reports available from the WDNR could not be used in the creation of the cross sections because they had insufficient or inconsistent location information. Reports for other wells have either not been filed or have been lost over time."

B. "Does the City of Waukesha have other options in the shallow aquifer?

"Waukesha has examined a variety of possible locations for the construction of high capacity wells in the shallow aquifer (AS&T 2004, 2005 a to d, 2006 a to c, 2007 for example).

"Most of these lie outside the City limits. They are commonly on undeveloped, often agricultural lands.

"As part of the assessment of the viability of each site, a search is done for all the potential contamination sources within the distance from the site required by the Department of Natural Resources. There are often many, many such sources identified near these relatively rural test properties, mostly associated with nearby human development.

"It appears from these site assessments that society has not done a particularly good job in the past of protecting the shallow aquifer as a source of water supply.

"The City of Waukesha will either need to go outside its boundaries to find a suitable site for wells in the shallow aquifer, or they will need to remove the existing potential contamination sources and any associated contamination.

"This past track record also suggests that any new sites they develop for wells should be protected against future contamination, and it makes it difficult to imagine how this could be done if the City also allows development on these sites.

"The City has examined the possibility of using treated wastewater as a means of augmenting their water supply (CH2M-Hill, 2002). The idea was dismissed due to water quality concerns in favor of other sources.

"Waukesha's wells 11 and 12, however, may be in a position to draw some water from the Fox River. As they are located downstream from the wastewater plant's discharge point, the river water will contain treated wastewater. As suggested above, the same may be true if wells are developed on the Lathers site.

"In the materials provided by the City of Waukesha, there appears to be no consideration of augmenting recharge to the shallow aquifer with runoff from rainfall or snowmelt.

"This is another large volume source of water available for use, although it would likely need to be treated due to quality concerns associated with roadway and land surface chemical applications in developed areas."

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