The healing waters of Waukesha eventually led to woes as the fabled springs dried up and the groundwater was radioactive. 

In 1868, a tired, thirsty diabetic named Richard Dunbar stopped to refresh himself at a cold mineral spring near Waukesha, Wisconsin – a place known for its good water. [Pronounced WAWK-e-sha.] Dunbar drank from the spring he named “Bethesda” and said he felt better for it. He bought the spring and claimed the water had curative properties. Dunbar aggressively marketed his healing waters. Tourists came to Waukesha, the “Saratoga of the West” to experience the so-called health benefits of the springs and the luxury hotels. Vacations to healing springs were common all over the world. Groundwater springs, which contained dissolved minerals derived from their bedrock transit, were superior to polluted surface waters or shallow, contaminated dug wells. 

Historical marker for the Dunbar Oak
Postcard from Bethesda Spring in Waukesha

With water so available, other entrepreneurs wanted to pipe water from these springs to the Chicago area. This was not a popular idea. It turned out that piping fresh water 100 miles to Chicago removed its good taste and positive properties. 

Bottle of Bethesda healing water

Springs dry up

In the latter 20th century, the fountain of good luck ran dry for Waukesha. It no longer had its healing springs. They had dried up and locals had to drill for potable water. Because the local aquifer is confined (has an overlying shale layer), the aquifer doesn’t recharge as fast as water is withdrawn so the quantity available dropped. The wells were drilled deeper in search of yield. Then, radium was found in the water. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radium in drinking water may result in an increased risk of bone cancer. Desperate for safe drinking water, the city planned to draw from Lake Michigan – a controversial and expensive proposition subject to the Great Lakes Compact. Now, they desperately negotiated to get needed water to flow into the town.

Radium levels had been increasing in other areas of eastern Wisconsin because of the draw from a deep sandstone aquifer below the problematic shale layer that limits recharge from rain and snow (and dilution of high-radium groundwater). The radium levels in Waukesha peaked in the 1990s but the quantity problem remained. Waukesha blended their water with low radium sources to reduce the concentration. Now, other Wisconsin towns, pinched by population growth and water usage, are experiencing the radium problem exacerbated by excessive pumping of the deep aquifer. 

From the healthy springs that brought wealth, eastern Wisconsin now experiences the expensive search to find water safe to drink. Water is a precious and limited resource. Please conserve.

REFERENCES

Blakemore, Erin. “The Clash Over Water in Waukesha, Wisconsin”. JSTOR Daily. June 2, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/clash-over-water-waukesha-wisconsin/.

Riccioli, Jim. “Radium levels in public water supplies have increased in Waukesha County — and much of Wisconsin, study finds”. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. March 4, 2020. https://www.jsonline.com/story/communities/waukesha/2020/03/04/uw-madison-study-finds-rising-radium-levels-wisconsin-water/4905416002/.

Simroth, Emily. “Lake Michigan Water Pipeline: Waukesha receives federal loan for water supply project”. Great Lakes Now website. August 27, 2020. https://www.greatlakesnow.org/2020/08/lake-michigan-pipeline-waukesha-water-supply-project/.

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