Chapter 7

Pleasing Pleasant Prairie (excerpt)

PLEASANT PRAIRIE, WISCONSIN, is a modest community spliced into the faceless suburbia that sprawls north along Interstate 94 from Chicago to Milwaukee. Located in the extreme southeast corner of Wisconsin, the town of eighteen thousand people is bordered by Illinois to the south, the city of Kenosha to the north and the rich blue waters of Lake Michigan to the east. Pleasant Prairie also happens to straddle the edge of the Great Lakes Basin. In some parts of the Great Lakes region, the watershed boundary lies more than 150 miles inland from the lakeshore. But in Pleasant Prairie, the watershed is a remarkably narrow strip just a few miles wide, which means the Basin divide cuts right through the middle of the village. Rain that falls on western Pleasant Prairie doesn’t find its way to Lake Michigan; it eventually ends up in the Mississippi River instead.

No one in Pleasant Prairie paid much attention to all this watershed business until the early 1980s. That’s when officials discovered that some of their groundwater wells were contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that was present in the village’s groundwater at four times the level allowed by the federal government. Discovering that you have a cancer-causing agent in your groundwater is bad news. But fortunately most people in Pleasant Prairie didn’t drink the town’s notorious well water any way. The taste was terrible, and the water was so stained that it ruined clothes in the washing machine. Sheets hanging out to dry in the backyard on a summer day would be marred if water from an errant lawn sprinkler made contact. Some people found that it was 125 possible to shower in the water after running it through a water softener, but everyone else found it useful for just one thing. “Flushing the toilet,” says Michael Pollocoff, administrator for the Village of Pleasant Prairie. “Most people got their [drinking] water from someplace else.”

Whether people drank the water or not, the federal government still considered it a health hazard. The village investigated a wide array of alternative water options, including treatment to remove the radium from the water supply. But that was expensive, and radium concentrations in the sludge would create all sorts of disposal headaches. Given that the community rests on the shores of Lake Michigan, turning to the Great Lakes seemed like an obvious alternative. The City of Kenosha, just to the north, already pulled its drinking water from Lake Michigan. And as luck would have it, Kenosha’s water lines were so close to Pleasant Prairie’s that one section of eight-foot pipe was all it would take to connect the two water systems. Kenosha had the capacity and inclination to bring Pleasant Prairie on line; all the two communities needed was clearance from state water officials.

That clearance would have been easy to obtain just a few years before, but by the late 1980s diverting water from the Great Lakes had entered a new and more complicated era....