The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), signalled last week that it's likely to recommend that Lake Michigan water be diverted to Waukesha County suburbs, and perhaps elsewhere in its seven-county territory, as a preferred solution to regional water supply demands.
This should come as no surprise.
The suburban-leaning SEWRPC green-lighted regional freeway expansion and has declined to write a regional housing plan since 1975 - - both decisions assisting growth in water-demanding areas.
Draft data was presented on July 17th to the SEWRPC water supply advisory committee projecting an increase in water demand in the SEWRPC seven-county region of 30% by 2035.
In annexation-crazy Waukesha County, ground zero in the effort to pipe water to thirsty communities west of the subcontinental divide at Sunny Slope Rd. (the geographic barrier that also makes up the current legal barrier preventing Lake Michigan diversions), the projected water demand is much higher, said SEWRPC's documentation.
The key numbers comparing 2000 to 2035 water needs in Waukesha County that will be used I predict to underpin eventual recommendations from SEWRPC supporting diversions from Lake Michigan are:
* Square miles in Waukesha County served by municipal water systems would increase to 171 square miles from 82 - - a boost of more than 100%.
*Municipal water systems in the county would increase to 24 from 16, or a 50% expansion.
* The average water pumpage each day by the anticipated number of county municipal water systems would jump to 49 million gallons from 26 million gallons - - an increase of 88%.
* Waukesha County's population of 360,000 in 2000 is projected to rise to 446,000 by 2035, according to data presented by SEWRPC earlier.
But County officials believe their eventual population could hit an even higher number - - 520,000 - - in what they call "build-out" scenarios.
That's a lot of new residents - - an increase approaching 50% from 2000 levels - - which would make the Waukesha County demand for water even greater than what SEWRPC is suggesting.
The inconsistency in the numbers raise a number of questions, but in no way suggest that demand for water will go anywhere but up, as will the political pressure from Waukesha for diversions, too.
Let's also examine the framework that SEWRPC is using to turn numbers into policy recommendations, especially the kind of "costs" the committee and SEWRPC staff and consultants have decided are important considerations when writing a regional water supply plan
Its approach is why I'd argue that the die is cast for the Lake Michigan option over, say, water re-use and recycling technologies to create supplies as an alternative to tapping into an already stressed lake and Great Lakes system.
From its 2005 beginning, the water advisory committee, heavy on water utility managers and other municipal officials, defined the study primarily with supply-and-demand parameters - - into which dollars-and-cents cost/benefit analyses fit nicely.
And avoid big-picture, inter-basin perspectives that argue it's poor water management practice to solve the problems in a watershed - - in this case, in Waukesha communities in the Mississippi River basin - - by transferring water from another - - the Lake Michigan/Great Lakes basin that is east of the sub-continental divide.
The SEWRPC approach, boiled down to essentials, is this:
Q: Where in the SEWRPC seven-county region would there be a pressing need for water?
A. Waukesha County, and also in lesser volumes, the other counties, such as Kenosha. (The Journal Sentinel reported this, with a chart, here.)
Q. Where is water in short, inaccessible, unacceptable supply.
A. Waukesha County.
Q. Where is there a big supply of fresh water?
A. Lake Michigan.
Q. Where is there an excess of existing pumping capacity?
A. The City of Milwaukee, which has two big water treatment facilities right on Lake Michigan.
Some members of SEWRPC's water supply advisory committee wanted to add "none-monetary" costs to the study scope, going beyond piping, pumping, buildings, and other engineering, operating and capital expenses.
At its second meeting in November, 2005 (minutes here in pdf, see pages 5-7, especially), the advisory committee debated that issue.
It turned back a proposal to specifically list potential legal costs as a factor in considering recommendations, because litigation could result if communities in the SEWRPC region won diversions from Lake Michigan water.
Diversions might be seen as communities solving one watershed's problems by subtracting water from another watershed, thus basically transferring the problem but disguising it as a solution.
The committee instead accepted the SEWRPC staff's opinion that potential legal costs were routinely factored into administrative budgets on engineering projects, and could also occur in non-diversion supply planning, so it was not necessary to have SEWRPC list potential legal costs when referencing potential Lake Michigan diversion plans
There was also a long discussion about whether to expand the scope of this regional water study objectives to include "all costs," including environmental. It was a sharp debate, not reflected in SEWRPC's dry minutes.
The committee was told by SEWRPC staff that environmental considerations would be included as a matter of routine, but some members balked at expanding monetary considerations in the study objectives to non-monetary.
The committee could not reach a decision by consensus, its preferred method of collegial committee decision-making.
So it voted on the "all cost including environmental" issue as a formal motion - - and declined to add the non-monetary parameter by a vote of 24-3- - locking in a more restricted, nuts-and-bolts study scope.
The final objective in question reads:
"The development of water supply facilities, operational improvements, and policies that are both economical and efficient, best meeting all other objectives at the lowest practical cost consistent both with long-term capital and operational and maintenance costs."
The only addition to the language was the insertion of the word "best."
With the study scope narrowed - - call it a victory for the engineers and the water utility managers - - fast forward a year-and-a-half to last week.
With population, pumping, and other data provided to the committee, I'm predicting that SEWRPC will focus its conclusions, as problem solvers, on meeting the demand side of the supply equation.
A proper noun comes to mind that defines the solution:
And a verb: Divert.
What's coming next?
The water supply advisory committee, led by staff and consultants, will finish their work in six months to a year.
And don't get me wrong: it's a hard-working bunch. It's just that they could have made their project a ground-breaking effort.
Swung for the fences.
But that's not what is happening, and given SEWRPC's institutional track record - - not a surprise.
Ideally, the committee's work will wind up after, or concurrent with, the state's adoption of the Great Lakes Compact.
That would put a diversion application and review procedure of some sort, and other conservation standards into place for Wisconsin by inserting them in state law.
How strongly-written are those procedures and standards will greatly effect how often Lake Michigan water is sought or diverted out of the Great Lakes basin to communities like Waukesha and New Berlin, and perhaps to others.
The committee's recommendations probably won't be unanimous, but the final tally won't be close.
SEWRPC will then conduct public hearings on its water advisory committee recommendations, and if history is a reliable guide, the meetings will be a formality, followed by approval at the full, 21-member Commission.
That vote will be close to unanimous, with perhaps one, maybe two "no" votes, if that.
SEWRPC likes creating policy and drafting studies through its advisory committees, and is spending about a million dollars on this one. It's out-of-the-question to think it would set aside all that spending with substantive amendments, or to ask another group to start over.
It's a long pantomime, and while SEWRPC will say that it's only issuing recommendations, government officials, subdivision-builders, mall planners and editorial writers will call the findings valuable and timely - - and the recommendations will come with SEWRPC's imprimatur.
Sure this is all speculative on my part. I'd love to be wrong, but again, this is what I predict:
SEWRPC's final report will recommend Lake Michigan diversions along with relatively modest, "economically-feasible" water conservation as the keys to a regional solution, and where possible, will recommend regional management of water, too.
It will not recommend controls over farmland conversion or sprawl-producing annexations that help fuel the growing demand for water.
The report will not acknowledge the role of government, including SEWRPC's, in helping to create some of the escalating demand for water by having pushed development far from Lake Michigan, where existing infrastructure and easy-to-access water should have been recommended as catalysts for regional economic growth through in-basin development.
One of the committee's approved objectives is that the water recommendations support the existing SEWRPC land use plan - - the one that has not been supplemented for 32 years with a housing plan, that has not aggressively supported transit with the same gusto reserved for freeway expansion, and that has paved the way, so to speak for the very sprawl and water demand driving the water study.
A more environmentally-focused and cooordinated land-use, water, transportation and housing plan would have prioritized in-basin growth and led the region away from sprawl, and away from diversions and their costs - - all costs - - engineering, social, legal - - that will accompany the movement of water from Lake Michigan over the subcontinental divide.
Yet Milwaukee will be identified as a 'best' solution to resolve what will called a regional water supply and demand imbalance.
That geographic solution will pressure politically Milwaukee to participate as a water seller to the suburbs, instead of being the focus of a regional approach that could have recommended using Milwaukee water to boost the economies in all the lakefront communities.
But to do that, you would had to have much broader objectives, and looked at the positive costs of highlight that kind of in-basin, lakefront-community centered water use, or the negative costs of omitting it.And what about the other imbalances (you could call them "costs" if you had been so-inclined) in the region - - access to jobs and housing, for instance, or public spending on freeways instead of transit - - that distort development along city (read: Milwaukee)/suburban/exurban/income and racial lines?
Those won't be be given real if any weight in the recommended water policy solutions - - because they were not identified at the beginning as SEWRPC study objectives.
Remember: That opportunity went away when the "all costs" motion lost 24-3, without even the support of Carrie Lewis, Milwaukee's Water Works Manager and the City of Milwaukee's lone representative on the committee.
And don't expect the City of Milwaukee's representatives on the full SEWRPC commission to refocus or amend the final report, or vote against it.
That's because Milwaukee, by state law, isn't permitted even a single one of those 21 Commission seats.
Some call this regional planning.
Others have a different label: A stacked deck.