Waukesha, WI's Dueling Water Agendas

For most Great Lakes communities, water shortages are just some strange and tragic plot line to screen when the movie comes to town. But for some - like Waukesha, WI - the story is much more real and close to home. In fact, the Milwaukee suburb has become the Jekyll and Hyde of the regional water use drama.

Located 30 miles west inland from Lake Michigan, the community represents both the challenges to, and opportunities for, sustaining the Great Lakes water supply for future generations.

On one hand, Waukesha, which lies just outside the Lake Michigan Basin, symbolizes all that is wrong with the current water use philosophy in the Midwest. Shortsighted land use planning and suburban sprawl prompts a building boom of new homes, strip malls, and big-box stores in what was previously a rural landscape. The number of new residents and businesses outpaces the availability of local water supplies. So the town reflexively turn to bigger pipes, larger pumps, and more plentiful water sources to meet growing demand.

Waukesha's ongoing campaign to tap Lake Michigan's flush reserves has infuriated environmentalists and burdened the region's elected officials for years now.

On the other hand, Waukesha also has begun to reveal a different, much more astute identity. The community forged a water conservation strategy, something most Great Lakes cities continue to ignore. They've begun to patrol water use, adopting strategies such as lawn watering restrictions in the hot summer months. And they're taking innovative measures to encourage the local population to take an active role in reducing the community's overall water use.

The town this year will launch a contest to see which households and families can achieve the most dramatic reduction in water consumption. The grand prize is $500 and, of course, free water for a year. (If you really want people to conserve water, raise the rates.)

"We want to tap into people's competitive spirit to win prizes by creating this contest," Todd Stair, a contest organizer, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Waukesha was once known worldwide for its water. Now let's be known for our water conservation."

That's a laudable goal. But in many ways Waukesha's push to promote simple water conservation measures strengthens it's moral authority to tap the Big Lake, even as it continues to sprawl. Why should they be denied as others pump away? Whether the community ultimately is a force for good or evil in the campaign to sustain the Great Lakes remains to be seen.