Water for Waukesha


Jeffrey Thornton, a principal planner for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said Waukesha’s Great Lakes water diversion plan is not a good idea at the “All Things Water” seminar at UW-Milwaukee’s Union Wednesday.

The seminar brought together water experts from government, academia and advocacy organizations. The audience watched a lecture and slide show focused on the management of fresh water resources and the region’s natural environment.

Waukesha needs new sources of water to support future growth because the city’s deep water wells contain cancer-causing radium. The courts ordered Waukesha to clean up its water supply by June 2018. The city must get approval from all the Great Lake states before implementing the water diversion plan.

The city is proposing the diversion of at least 10.9 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan to Waukesha. The treated waste water will be returned back to Lake Michigan via the Underwood Creek in Brookfield, the Root River, or the Milwaukee Water Supply.

Thornton, a Waukesha resident, said the proposed plan would not make good use of resources.

“It really is stupid in a lot of ways, because there are limits to growth,” Thornton said. “If we do not have the water to be able to sustain a larger population or to support a more scattered diversified population in the sense of geography, then I’m sorry we’ve reached a limit to growth.”

He has worked for the SEWRPC since 1992 and said the treated waste water diverted into the Great Lakes could affect drinking water supplies in Illinois and recreational waters in both Wisconsin and Illinois.


The Commission covers 150 municipalities in the seven counties of Southeastern Wisconsin.  Senator Gaylord Nelson signed the SEWRPC into existence in 1960.

The Commission is responsible for collecting information to help develop plans to coordinate the region into a more cohesive framework. The Commission also helps to resolve conflicts resulting from development and environmental pressures.

School of Freshwater Sciences

Thomas Slawski, who joined the SEWRPC in 1998, said he came to UWM to work for the Center for Great Lakes Studies. He watched the center reinvent itself into the Water Institute and eventually develop into the School of Freshwater Sciences.

“What I think perhaps is different about the School of Freshwater Sciences is its broader scope, and its partnerships with agencies like ours, and engaging with the public,” Slawski said.

Slawski, a UWM graduate, said the university has a substantial influence on the SEWPRC.

“At any given time UWM graduates make up 40 to 75 percent of the Commission staff,” Slawski said.

Thornton said the School of Freshwater Sciences helps landowners and development communities learn about green infrastructure.

“Having some of the programs, both continuing education and undergraduate and graduate programs here at the university I think is really just tapping a huge pool of potential need,” Thornton said.

Looking toward the future

Thornton said that the Commission’s current understanding of fresh water and the environment developed through a series of single-purpose projects and that those projects are the way of the future.

SEWRPC’s top five priorities for future water resource management:

  • Fresh water access
  • Limiting pollution
  • Meeting the recreational demands of people
  • Water quality
  • Native species quality and keeping non-native species out

Marcia Gabriel, the Associate Outreach Specialist for the Center of Sustainability at UWM, said public attitudes about water have changed and that classes are filling up at the School of Freshwater Sciences.

“There is a renewed interest in water activities.  It’s all about water, there has never been a more critical time for people to get involved,” she said.