Oak Creek, one of three cities that might provide Waukesha with Lake Michigan water, could find out by July if it will add the city to its service area.
A successful negotiation could pay off for Oak Creek residents -- under current projections, rates could go down by 25 percent if the city got the contract, utility engineer Mike Sullivan said.
But discussions still have a little ways to go. And after the negotiations made headlines in March, Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak gave the Oak Creek Common Council some background about the city's quest for lake water in a presentation Tuesday night.
Waukesha is in this situation because problems such as radium, saltwater and arsenic have put the city's water supply out of legal compliance, and that has forced the city to either treat or replace its water supply by 2018.
Duchniak said all water supply alternatives exist outside the city limits, and that of all the possibilities, diverting water from Lake Michigan is the most cost-effective solution.
"One of the things that we don't want to do is spend two hundred million dollars twice," Duchniak said. "We just want to spend it once and have it last for the long term. For generations."
Duchniak said Waukesha's cheapest route is getting water from Milwaukee, but that steps are being taken to reduce the potential cost for Racine and Oak Creek.
By improving the infrastructure in Oak Creek and Franklin -- instead of building a new pipe to the Oak Creek treatment plant -- the cost of getting Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek would be closer to the estimated $164 million project in Milwaukee, Duchniak said.
Mayor Steve Scaffidi said he invited to Duchniak to speak so aldermen could hear straight from Waukesha, rather than relying on media reports. He was referring to by the mayors of Milwaukee, Racine and Oak Creek, who said Waukesha's quest for lake water could put their cities at a disadvantage for economic development.
Addressing those concerns, Duchniak said Waukesha's need for the water is regarding public health, not future growth.
Undeveloped land accounts for about 15 percent of Waukesha's proposed service area, which includes areas of the Town of Genesee, Town of Waukesha and City of Pewaukee, and would mainly be used as residential, rather than an industrial or commercial expansion, Duchniak said. The utility's current area services roughly 71,000 people, but Duchniak expects that number to rise to about 97,000.
To help cut costs, Waukesha has proposed returning lake water via Underwood Creek. Duchniak said that on a five-year average, 100 percent of the water would be returned to Lake Michigan.
As Waukesha is just on the other side of the Subcontinental Divide, which naturally returns water to the lake, it must receive the go-ahead from each of the Great Lakes states before moving forward with the project.
Waukesha expects to receive that decision by the end of the year.
But with time to complete the project ticking, the water utility is hoping to reach terms of a contract by July and begin construction in the summer of next year.
Some construction, anticipated to be paid for by Waukesha, would occur if Oak Creek got the contract, Sullivan said in an interview.
A 25 percent decrease in Oak Creek customers' water bill would be a "big number" and a significant benefit for residents, Sullivan said.
Residents would see a decrease because of the utility's ability to sell more water within its existing infrastructure. Through its planning efforts, the utility is always set up for an expansion, whether it be Oak Creek's future growth or additional sales, Sullivan said.
Sullivan added the true decrease won't be known until a contract is finalized.
--Mark Schaaf contributed to this report.