Waukesha is a large suburban city, of about seventy-thousand, in a prosperous suburban county, of about four-hundred thousand. By ordinary estimation, the residents of the city and county should have no difficulties with basic utilities and infrastructure.
And yet, Waukesha has a water supply problem:
Waukesha does not have an adequate supply of water that is fit to drink, due to radium contamination of deep groundwater supplies; and all the city’s water supply options outside the Great Lakes basin would have adverse effects on wetlands, streams and inland lakes.
To remedy this problem Waukesha is seeking water from the Great Lakes, but that request is controversial (as it’s a diversion of supplies there), and Waukesha’s request has thus far been granted only in part:
The City of Waukesha’s request for more than 10 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water was cut substantially by representatives of Great Lakes states and provinces meeting Friday in Chicago.
Waukesha’s plan to pump up to an average of 10.1 million gallons a day by midcentury will be trimmed to an average of 8.2 million gallons a day after the Great Lakes officials removed portions of three neighboring communities from a future water service area to receive lake water, as a condition of the regional group’s acceptance of the request.
That a growing population will need more water is unsurprising; that’s not, however, the full cause of Waukesha’s need. It’s that some of her existing supplies are no longer suitable for human consumption. One might have expected that more people would require more water. What’s unexpected is that, in a prosperous county, with a prosperous county seat, in the most developed part of the state, parts of the water supply might be contaminated, and therefore unusable to the county’s residents.
If someone has said the same about a distant and impoverished place, on the other side of the world, the claim might have been more predictable (if no less unfortunate for those involved).
Yet, it’s here, in a developed, advanced place, that these inadequacies are present. (The only advantage in this is that we have the wealth and technology to identify health hazards more easily than many societies.)
We think, often rightly, that we live in robust and safe conditions. That’s often true, but less true than we might like: damage to the natural environment is easier to bring about than we might think (or wish).
It’s a mistake – and concerning water an expensive one – to overlook the risks to the environment that may develop even in the most prosperous places.