A: Two reasons: The ongoing costs of operating and maintaining our infrastructure for both water supply and sewer services, and the costs of our switch to a new water supply.

Water and sewer rates are increasing across the country. Typical increases average 5% to 8% per year, due to the costs of operating the systems, maintaining pipes and treatment facilities, replacing water mains and sewer pipes, upgrading treatment plants, and more.

In addition, Waukesha is undertaking a large capital project to switch to a Lake Michigan water supply by 2023, to ensure that our community has reliable and safe drinking water for the long term. The new water supply is expected to cost the average residential customer about $50 per month by 2027.

A: Our current water supply is unreliable for the long-term needs of our community.

Our current primary groundwater source is severely depleted. It also has excessive amounts of natural contaminants, including radium, and we face a 2023 deadline to provide water that fully complies with federal drinking water standards. We must address both these issues. Doing nothing is not an option.

More than 15 years of study convinced city leaders that we must switch to a Lake Michigan water. All ten Great Lakes states and provinces agreed with our conclusion that using and returning lake water is the only reasonable option.

There is no cheaper alternative. Increasing treatment for radium contamination, for example, would only be an expensive, short-term Band-Aid.

Our switch to Lake Michigan water by 2023 will ensure that city residents and businesses have a water supply that is safe, reliable and sustainable for the long term, helping ensure that our city is a desirable place to live now and for generations to come.

A: We will switch to Lake Michigan water by 2023.

Planning and permitting is currently underway and construction will begin in 2020.

A: Water bills cover the costs of supplying drinking water and then treating the wastewater.

The water supply part of your bill pays for the infrastructure, testing and people needed to obtain water, to treat it and to deliver high-quality water to your home. It covers the costs of constructing, maintaining and replacing the necessary pipes and treatment facilities. For the average residential customer in Waukesha, the water supply charge is about $86 per quarter.

Starting June 1, 2018, Waukesha has added a return flow charge to begin to pay the costs of building and operating a return flow system. That includes the required 23-mile pipeline that will recycle Lake Michigan water back to the Great Lakes Basin. The current average return flow charge is $7 per quarter.

The other half of your water bill is the wastewater charge. That pays for collecting and treating the wastewater you generate and then returning it to the environment as clean water. The current average wastewater charge is $94 per quarter.

The current total water bill for Waukesha residential customers in 2018 adds up to about $188 per quarter (totals affected by rounding):
Average water supply charge $86
Average return flow charge 7
Average wastewater charge 94
Current average residential total $188

A: Waukesha’s current water bills are currently lower than area averages.

We compared the total Waukesha bill to the water and sewer charges in other communities that have comprehensive information about their rates online. We assumed 4,000 gallons per month usage, which is the average for Waukesha residences.

Total charges in 2018 range from about $151 per quarter in Sussex to $330 per quarter in Fox Point. The total charges are less in the City of Waukesha than the averages in Waukesha County ($195) and Milwaukee County ($241), as figure 2 above shows.

A: No. A reliable water supply makes Waukesha a better place to live.

Homeowners, renters and business owners all want to know that they can count on dependable, clean water. The cost of a new water supply will be about $50 per month by 2027. Any differences in water rates between communities will be too small to affect property values.

A: Water rates may increase about 148% over nine years to cover ongoing costs and the new water supply.

Waukesha has estimated the ongoing costs to maintain and operate our water and wastewater systems. We also examined the costs of investing in the new water supply, including the required return flow. We estimated costs through 2027, when bond payments will be underway. The bond payments are essentially payments for the loan to fund the improvements – much like a mortgage payment on a home.

We estimate the total water bill (water supply, return flow and wastewater charges) will average about $466 per quarter for the average residential customer in 2027. That is about a 148% increase over nine years. It covers the new water supply, plus the ongoing costs of operating and maintaining the infrastructure to supply drinking water and collect and treat wastewater.

The water supply side of the bill (including return flow) will approximately triple by 2027 and the sewer side will approximately double.

A: The total cost of the project to provide a long-term, safe drinking water supply is estimated at $285 million.

It is estimated that the new water supply will cost the average residential customer about $50 per month by 2027.

A: Waukesha’s rates are going up, but should continue to be comparable to many of our neighbors and even lower than some others in the future.

Like Waukesha, other communities will also face ongoing investment needs and will be raising water rates.

We have estimated what rates may look like in other communities. Increases in other communities are estimated in a range of 5% to 8% per year, which is typical among utilities nationally. The projections for average bills are compared in figure 3 above.

A: City and utility officials are doing all they can to reduce the financial impacts.

For example, the city is working with the federal government, including our Congressional Representatives and Senators, for financial help that could reduce the impacts on ratepayers. Our local state legislators and Governor Walker have already helped with improvements in infrastructure loan terms. And our recent agreement to purchase water from the City of Milwaukee will save the average residential ratepayer about $224 per year, compared to other potential suppliers.

It is important to remember that water or wastewater projects are not funded with property tax dollars. It is the rates paid by users that pay the costs.

A: Yes, conservation rebates and information on saving water are on our utility site.

Waukesha is a leader in water conservation efforts. You can find information on our rebate programs for rain barrels, as well as water-saving toilets and showerheads, at our utility website, www.Waukesha-Water.com. The site also has tips on how to conserve water, facts about when sprinkling is allowed in Waukesha and information about our education programs. Businesses can also find information on conservation incentives at the site. Or call us at 262.521.5272.

A: The Great Water Alliance website is a great way to stay informed.

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Call Waukesha Water Utility

And you can learn more about utility issues and water conservation – including rebates for rain barrels and water-saving toilets and showerheads – at www.Waukesha-Water.com.

A: The taste of water that’s sourced from Lake Michigan may be slightly different than our current groundwater because it will have less mineral content.

While taste preferences are highly subjective, it’s important to remember that millions of people drink and enjoy freshwater from the Great Lakes every day, including those in hundreds of Wisconsin communities. In our case, the taste will be made all the sweeter by the knowledge that we are doing the right thing for the future of Waukesha and the Great Lakes Basin.

A: In a word, no.

At the same time, the Utility recognizes that this decision remains a personal choice for each user. While the City of Waukesha is discouraging continued use because they contribute to higher chloride levels in the new water supply’s return flow, customers have the right to decide how best to move forward. At a minimum, the softener regeneration cycle can be scaled back significantly because the new water will be nearly 70% softer than the current supply. Getting rid of your water softener entirely will lead to savings that can help mitigate the rate increases accompanying the program: aside from the expense associated with periodically replacing the unit, residents can realize a reduction in the monthly costs of salt and electricity.

A: The biggest change with the switch from groundwater to the new Lake Michigan supply is that the water coming into homes and business will be much softer.

In other words, it will have much less iron and manganese in it. Residents will immediately notice that it’s better for washing dishes, clothes, and even your hair. It will also be good for your dishwasher, your washing machine and your hot water heater because there will be much less mineral build-up.

A: Waukesha’s new water program will be funded through several sources.

The sale of bonds, low-interest federal loans through the state, and potential federal grant money will partially pay for the project. Of course, as the primary beneficiaries of the program, customers of the Waukesha Water Utility will also help pay the total cost through increased rates. And while the water portion of the bill – typically about half of the total – could double and possibly triple, residents in the service area are, by and large, viewing the increase as an investment in their community’s future.

A: The planning team is in the process of determining possible routes for both the water supply pipeline to Waukesha and the return flow pipeline from Waukesha to the Root River.

We expect the route to be finalized by early 2018, and anticipate that it will use existing rights-of-way and transportation corridors for most of its length. Stay tuned for more details.

A: The project will take several years to plan and build.

The Waukesha Water Utility has hired a program manager and is currently working with consultants on project design, pipeline routes, permitting, public outreach planning, and more. Construction is expected to begin in 2020, and Waukesha’s goal is to have the new water supply online as early as 2023. As work progresses, we’ll be reaching out to people in the communities involved on a regular basis.

A: No. About 473 – or 94% – of the more than 500 municipal wastewater treatment plants in Wisconsin flow into rivers. 

Only 22 flow directly to the Great Lakes and 8 flow directly to inland lakes. Federal and state regulations protect water quality and communities that are downstream of municipal discharges, and Waukesha’s return flow will meet all permit limits. Only a handful of communities in Wisconsin have treatment processes that are as advanced as those used by Waukesha’s Clean Water Plant.

A: No. There will be no risk of a sewer overflow to the Great Lakes from Waukesha.

Unlike some communities with sewer overflow problems, Waukesha has separate storm sewers and sanitary sewers, so its Clean Water Plant is not overwhelmed by storm water. In addition, the return flow pump station is designed so that only fully treated water can reach the pumps and pipes that will send the return flow back to Lake Michigan. Run-off and other upstream communities may have a potential adverse impact on the Root, but Waukesha is legally bound by permit requirements and the Compact to return only clean water to Lake Michigan.

A: Waukesha’s return flow will help improve the fishery and support fish stocking programs in the Great Lakes Basin.

The base flow of the Root River has been reported since 1966 to be too low to support water quality, recreation, and fisheries goals in the watershed. The Department of Natural Resources and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission have explored adding to the volume of water in the river for decades, but have been unable to augment the river’s flow because the costs were too high.

During the summer and fall, some sections of the river have very low flow, which does not support fish migrating from Lake Michigan. Increased flows would improve the amount of river habitat in the Root and aid the fishery, particularly during fall spawning runs of salmon and trout. At the Root River Steelhead Facility, for instance, the clean water of Waukesha’s return flow will increase river levels by 6.6 inches during low flow periods.

Waukesha will borrow (and return) around 8.2 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan. This may seem like a large amount, but during high-flow events, the return flow is inconsequential compared to the total volume of water in the river. For example, during the June 2008 storm, the Root River flow measured a little over 5.2 billion gallons. Waukesha’s added outflow would have meant an increase of just 00.15%.


A:  No, return flow to the Root River will protect water quality because the water will meet all state and federal water quality limits.

For some parameters, return flow water quality will be better than that of the river. Waukesha’s discharge to the Root River in Franklin will have stricter permit limits than existing area wastewater discharges to the Root River and other rivers, or directly to Lake Michigan. Waukesha’s Clean Water Plant uses advanced treatment processes that are matched by only a handful of municipalities in the state. Waukesha will also be collecting and analyzing data on the Root, as well as actively encouraging encouraging the reduction of pollutants from pharmaceutical and personal care products in the return flow.

In approving Waukesha’s application, the Great Lakes Compact Council concluded unanimously that the program’s return flow will actually benefit the Root River. You can learn more about their findings here.

A: That depends on where you live.

For Waukesha residents, the program will provide water that’s safe, reliable, and environmentally sustainable for generations to come. Naturally, water rates will increase to cover the expense of this vital project, and there will be additional issues to consider when ground is broken in 2020, and as the city changes over to this new water supply.

For communities along the pipeline routes, there may be some inconveniences during construction, but we are developing plans to minimize those impacts and to ensure that the public is well-informed.

The Utility is already preparing outreach and guidance for all citizens who will be impacted by this important initiative, and is committed to keeping the lines of communication clear and open throughout the process.

A: No. Very few other communities are likely to apply for diversions under the Great Lakes Compact. 

The Compact bans diversions of Great Lakes water. The two exceptions are for Straddling Communities and Communities in Straddling Counties. The strict criteria require that the borders of the community itself – or the county in which it is situated – must straddle the Great Lakes surface water divide. Furthermore, an application is considered only if the same amount of water is returned after use and treatment. Less than 1% of the Great Lakes region population is even eligible to apply.

It should be noted that withdrawing and returning water over long distances is extremely expensive, and typically requires geographic proximity to a large municipal water supply within the Great Lakes Basin. Recall, too, that under the Compact, a community needs to demonstrate that it has no reasonable water supply alternative. For the small number of communities that do meet these criteria, the successful Waukesha application sets a strong precedent for protecting public health and the environment.


A: Great Lakes supporters, environmentalists, proponents of good government planning, fishing enthusiasts, public health advocates, and the citizens of Southeast Wisconsin.

Of course, residents of the City of Waukesha, who need a safe and reliable supply of drinking water, will also benefit. But in a very real sense, every person who lives and works in the Great Lakes Basin area will gain from knowing that the Compact Council was able to balance the need for access to clean drinking water with the imperative to maintain environmental sustainability. Waukesha’s application proved that the Great Lakes Compact works.

A: Clean, treated water will be returned to the lake on a daily basis, in an amount equal to the average daily volume withdrawn during the previous calendar year.

The amount lost to consumption is counterbalanced by Mother Nature: rainfall and snowmelt is treated and added to the return flow to satisfy the requirement that we send back the same amount that we borrow. Any excess water will be discharged through Waukesha’s existing outlet to the Fox River. An analysis of the years 2005 through 2012 shows that the percentage of water returned in each of those years would have ranged from 99.6% to 100.8%, compared to the volume withdrawn the previous year.

A: No. Waukesha’s return flow to Lake Michigan will result in no negative impact on Great Lakes levels.

The Great Lakes Compact requires that Waukesha return all borrowed water, less consumptive use, back to the Great Lakes Basin. This legal stipulation sets a positive and protective precedent for having no impact on Great Lakes water levels. Waukesha will actually exceed this requirement, and will return the same amount it borrows from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha’s future average daily withdrawal will not exceed 1/1,000,000th of 1% of the volume of the Great Lakes. To put this in perspective, the amount borrowed is the equivalent of dipping out – then pouring back in – one teaspoon from an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

A: Plans currently call for the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to sell water to Waukesha.

Milwaukee is a community with an established water utility and excess water pumping capacity. It has agreed to sell water to Waukesha.

The Milwaukee/Waukesha agreement is an excellent example of how governments can work together cooperatively to maximize community assets.

A: Yes. Federal standards for the maximum levels of radium in drinking water are set to prevent increased health risks for people who drink the water over many years.

Currently, an agreement with the state allows the Utility to operate while meeting radium standards on a weighted average, but moving forward we are obligated to come into compliance with the standards at all times. The switch to a new water supply allows us to do that. Just as importantly, the use and return of Great Lakes water is sustainable for the long term, unlike the continued use of our depleted groundwater aquifer.

To be clear, the immediate health risk is negligible. Waukesha’s water is safe to drink today…and will be even safer to drink once the new water supply is up and running.     

A: No. The City of Waukesha is largely developed. Population growth will be very limited, and new development will be predominantly infill.

The approval of Waukesha’s application legally limits the geographic footprint of Waukesha’s water supply area primarily to the city. Less than 3% of the approved service area is outside the city limits, including 26 acres in Pewaukee that are already served by the city, as well as town “islands” – also currently served –that are surrounded by the city. Waukesha needs a new water supply to sustainably meet the needs of existing residents, not to support additional growth.

A: No. While water conservation is important in satisfying both Waukesha’s water needs and the terms of the Compact, it cannot save enough water to avoid the need for a sustainable water supply.

Waukesha will continue to be a leader in water conservation. It has already adopted the first daytime ban on sprinkling, the first conservation rate structure, and the first toilet rebate program in the state. Waukesha also remains committed to ongoing public education and outreach about both existing and expanded conservation efforts: The City’s goal is to achieve significant and measurable water savings by 2050.

Continued reliance on groundwater, however, would require water and energy-intensive treatment for the removal of contaminants such as radium, total dissolved salts (TDS) and strontium from the deep aquifer, and arsenic from the shallow aquifer. The volume of water wasted would exceed the volume of water saved through conservation.

A: Adding more radium removal systems to deep aquifer wells and developing more shallow wells does not address the primary issue – providing the City with a long-term, sustainable and reliable water supply.

In addition to radium, groundwater quality issues include high total dissolved salts (TDS) and strontium in the deep aquifer, and arsenic in the shallow aquifer. Treatment systems to remove these contaminants would be energy intensive and generate concentrated waste pollutants that are difficult to treat and dispose of. The volume of water used by such systems would more than offset the volume saved through the city’s conservation program.

Unlike groundwater options in the area, a Lake Michigan water supply is environmentally sustainable because Waukesha will recycle all of the water volume back to the lake. The Great Lakes option is the only reasonable alternative because it is the best way of protecting public health and the environment for the long term.

A: A thick layer of shale rock restricts recharge of Waukesha’s primary water source, the deep aquifer.
This shale layer covers much of southeastern Wisconsin (including Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha Counties, as well as most of Waukesha County). The limited recharge of rain and snowmelt to the deep aquifer has contributed to depletion of the aquifer.

The depletion is also the result of decades of pumping by multiple municipal water systems and industries all across southeast Wisconsin. Waukesha’s leaders recognized this lack of sustainability and have examined water supply alternatives for decades. They have determined that Lake Michigan is the only reasonable water supply alternative.

A: Waukesha is an older, developed city that is part of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. It lies about 17 miles west of Lake Michigan and 1.5 miles from the Great Lakes Basin surface water divide.
The City of Waukesha is the county seat of Waukesha County. As the primary urban area for the county, it is home to a historic downtown, a mass transit system, and an established community of increasing diversity. A visitor to Waukesha would see sites similar to those in other small cities throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

A: Waukesha’s water supply does not comply with safe drinking water standards and is environmentally unsustainable.
The existing water supply – a deep aquifer – is severely depleted, due in part to a natural formation (a thick layer of shale rock) that restricts rain and snowmelt from recharging it. As the water levels have decreased, naturally occurring contaminants such as radium have increased. Long-term use of the aquifer is not sustainable, and continuing to pump it until exhaustion would be environmentally irresponsible.
Waukesha’s secondary water source is shallow groundwater wells. Adding new shallow groundwater wells would have permanent environmental impacts on valued brooks and streams, as well as nearby wetland habitats in environmentally sensitive areas.