June 22, 2012

On June 20th, the Milwaukee Public Works Committee of the Common Council voted to start negotiations with Waukesha to sell them water to meet the city’s needs (http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/milwaukee-panel-votes-to-limit-waukesha-water-talks-qi5riml-159741245.html) , but they excluded selling water to four adjoining municipalities currently included in a future water service area requested by Waukesha in their application for a Great Lakes diversion. Mayor Barrett testified in front of the Committee stating that he suspects Waukesha needs lake water to support its “annexation politics,” and that it was difficult for him to approve selling water to 4 other municipalities that have not requested lake water from Milwaukee and were unlikely to need or want water in the near future.

Waukesha Water Utility Manager Dan Duchniak countered that Waukesha has agreements from three of the four communities to be included in the water service area (Genessee, Pewaukee, and Delafield) and was only waiting for permission from the Town of Waukesha, and that Milwaukee stipulating that they would only sell water initially to the City of Waukesha was a “non-starter”. Duchniak also points out that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), not Waukesha, established the city’s future water service area under state law, and Waukesha must be capable of supplying water to that area. WDNR official Eric Ebersberger indicated that WDNR also has a problem with Milwaukee’s proposal to limit initial water distribution to Waukesha, because WDNR is worried that in the future property owners outside of that city may encounter well contamination problems and need to hook up to Waukesha’s municipal supply. Duchniak intimates that Milwaukee’s proposal would require having a separate water and sewer system for those areas outside of the service area in the future, which would be untenable.

But let’s get real here.

SEWRPC did create the proposed water supply service area for Waukesha—without public comment. The Towns were not asked for their approval in being included in this territory by SEWRPC or even by Waukesha, who included large portions of their towns in their proposed water diversion application. The Towns currently are largely on private well and septic, and ALREADY have a completely separate system for water and sewer, which is unlikely to change in the near future. When finally Milwaukee, as water seller, questions the large size of the proposed water supply area, they are rebuffed as trying to “kill” the water deal, which could net the City over $3 million in revenue. Milwaukee is right to be cautious in questioning the water supply service area, as it goes to “need” and what is a reasonable water request. The Great Lakes Compact requires that communities seeking a diversion show that they are asking for a “reasonable” amount of water and that they have no other “reasonable” water supply alternative. It is questionable whether the City of Waukesha has even met this bar in their precedent setting application under the Great Lakes Compact, and whether or not the towns need water or have other reasonable water supply alternatives is not even discussed as part of the diversion application. This will clearly draw many questions from other States and Canadian Provinces that will be reviewing Waukesha’s application. Several Aldermen at the Public Works Committee postulated that this issue alone could doom approval of this application by the other Great Lakes States, and that they were doing Waukesha a favor by essentially giving them a badly needed reality check.

In addition, while during the last several days Waukesha officials have stated that they could not change their water supply service area, this is contrary to statements they have made in recent months while bullying the Town of Waukesha into “opting in” to their plans. The Waukesha Water Utility sent comments to the Town of Genesee and the Town of Waukesha on January 10, 2011 stating: “Non-approval by the Town of the City’s Great Lakes water supply for the area of the Town designated by SEWRPC will result in this area being deleted from Great Lakes Water Supply Service by the City of Waukesha and revision of the Water Supply Service Area Plan.” Furthermore, in an article on Tuesday (http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/aldermans-proposal-could-thwart-milwaukee-waukesha-water-talks-oj5r2om-159607265.html), Waukesha states that they could ask SEWRPC to amend the service area to include only the City of Waukesha, but that they don’t have time to do that because they have a court-ordered radium compliance deadline of June 2018. So I guess it’s possible to change the service area if it’s Waukesha’s idea but not if it’s the City of Milwaukee’s?

Also, it’s important to point out that while Waukesha has a legitimate problem of radium contamination in their deep wells, that their constant threats of needing to speed up the process to meet this compliance deadline are a red herring. First, the City is meeting radium guidelines 11 months out of the year, and the one month where they generally have problems is August, which is because residents water use increases due to lawn watering and irrigation. This problem could and should be dealt with as part of their required comprehensive water conservation program under the Compact (its also important to note that the diversion application has no information on whether or not the included towns have met required conservation guidelines per Compact requirements). Secondly, it is still questionable whether or not Waukesha has proved that they have no “reasonable” water supply alternatives. Riverkeeper pointed out that real and sustainable alternatives such as riverbank inducement exist in a recent MJS editorial (http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/milwaukee-officials-wise-to-be-cautious-0i57gbl-149588225.html), especially if a smaller and more reasonable water supply amount was being requested, and this was echoed by the new UWM School of Freshwater Sciences Dean in a subsequent editorial, where Dean Garman postulates that Waukesha is looking for 19th Century solutions to its water problems (http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/waukesha-needs-innovative-thinking-df5bt6d-152111335.html).

Milwaukee officials are wise to be cautious. A decision to sell Lake Michigan water would not only affect our economy, it will affect our environment. While Waukesha’s Duchniak tries to bully Milwaukee with statements to the media such as “It makes no sense to me that Milwaukee would disqualify itself from a water agreement that would bring them more than $3 million in revenue at the start,” it is important to note that there are also potential significant costs to Milwaukee from Waukesha returning that used and treated wastewater back to Milwaukee through our rivers and streams. Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, and MMSD have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in flood control and water quality improvement projects in the last decade alone—and its important to thoroughly and holistically consider the economic impacts of this diversion to ensure that short term economic gains are not overwhelmed by long-term fiscal woes from impacts due to flooding and increased pollutants. Milwaukee has a responsibility to protect its citizens as well as a resource that provides water to over 40 million people throughout the Great Lakes.

Cheryl Nenn
Milwaukee Riverkeeper