The irony is no secret. Water, once the source of spectacular growth for Waukesha over a century ago, is about to become the grip that stunts that growth for the foreseeable future. And that's the best-case scenario.
The governing body overseeing the Great Lakes watershed has been slowly shrinking the request the city made. As it currently stands, if the plan to divert water from Lake Michigan via Oak Creek is approved, the city's current boundaries would be essentially locked at their present size. Future growth, if it happens at all, would not be the result of a need for municipal water.
Not only does his mean the city has only one option to grow and that is redevelop existing property, but it also leaves other areas stranded, at least for now. Large sections of the town of Waukesha, town of Delafield and city of Pewaukee, among others, in areas where growth was forecast to fall into the city's water system, will no longer be eligible for it.
The city doesn't exactly have a bargaining chip, other than to nod and take whatever the council gives them. If the governors for the states decide against diverting water, the city has to go back to the drawing board without any viable options.
The city has argued in the past that the standard for radium in drinking water is arbitrary; we all know some level of radium is unsafe, but nobody really knows if the federal standard is anything but an educated guess. Regardless, this battle has been fought and lost in the court, and the truth is the watershed the city is drawing from is diminishing.
So what are the prospects? Spending millions of dollars on supplying safe and abundant water (and returning treated effluent) from Lake Michigan and freezing Waukesha growth, or spending millions of additional dollars to avoid state and federal fines in what could be a fruitless battle to find another source for that water? It's a devil's bargain. The city has been wise to do what it has been doing so far, biting its lip and taking the punishment in hopes that someday in the distant future it might get a better deal.
The city's fate has always been tied to its water source, from prehistoric times to the natural springs era of the 19th century to the radium dilemma of today. And today we are all thirsting for a solution to get us through the rest of this century.