Monday, January 12, 2009

Waukesha's Premature Push For Lake Michigan Water

I have had time to study in depth the written questions posed by six environmental groups to the City of Waukesha as Waukesha moves towards filing a formal application for a Lake Michigan diversion.

The questions, lengthy and somewhat technical, are here.

Raised in the questions are legal, regulatory, environmental and regional development issues that, for the first time, coherently provide the very blueprint for discussion absent from the regional water supply study that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has just finished and is about to launch for public comment.

It is amazing that SEWRPC spent nearly a million dollars of public money and took three years to write a water supply study that ignores big picture issues - - such as the relationship of water to growth - - yet comes to the conclusion that diverting water to Waukesha is the best idea available.

From the beginning, SEWRPC limited the scope of its study and hired the same lead consultant - - Ruekert & Mielke - - to write its recommendations that the City of New Berlin had hired to write its Lake Michigan diversion application.

And you wonder why I have been arguing that SEWRPC needs to be reconstituted with new management and direction so that it can take all aspects of planning into account?

Or why SEWRPC's justice task force has asked that outside experts he retained every time SEWRPC writes a plan so that independent socio-economic analyses can he obtained?

Waukesha has yet to make more than a public relations case that its water supply needs have to be met with a diversion.

And its water supply consultants suggest that the DNR hasn't had time to write rules and provide diversion guidance now that the Great Lakes Compact and state enabling legislation have been approved.

The diversion seres its ambitions growth plans, through annexations and building so it can be the hub of a sprawled-out Waukesha county that is in line to absorb by 149,000 new residents, according to Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas.

That is an increase to 509,000 residents above its 2000 US Census Bureau number of 360,000 county residents - - about equal to adding two Ozaukee County census bureau population totals to Waukesha County.

[Update: At Monday night's SEWRPC water study presentation at HeartLove Place, in Milwaukee, SEWRPC water expert Bob Biebel challenged the population figure put out by Waukesha County Executive Vrakas. Biebel said SEWRPC believes Waukesha County's population will rise by 70,000 by 2035, and said SEWRPC also believes Milwaukee County's population will grow by 70,000, too, despite a state official's estimate of losses.

So what is driving the City of Waukesha's water diversion application which will seek up to 24 million gallons of water, when its current daily use is nine million gallons+.

Why apply for more than twice your current usage? What's really going on?

And while that question needs an open discussion, neither SEWRPC, Vrakas, or the City of Waukesha is leading the charge for planning to integrate transit, affordable housing, clean air and sustainable use of new and existing supplies of water - - speaking volumes about their willingness to off-load those issues onto the rest of the region and taxpayers.

[Update: At the Monday water presentation, Biebel said nearly all the SEWRPC water utility service area has been built out, leaving little need for water above 9.8 million gallons daily - - the current Waukesha city average daily usage - - and that because Waukeaha's growth will be same whether the city gets Lake Michigan water or uses other sources, the net job growth due to the Lake Michigan diversion is "zero."]

The new Great Lakes Compact says that a diversion has to meet a last resort, and clearly Waukesha is not at that position.

And the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has not written the rules governing many aspects of diversion application submission, review and implementation.

So in an interim review period of what may be several years, it behooves Waukesha to answer the groups' questions, since this will not be the first test of the city's plans.

The environmental groups have done the region a genuine public service.

It should have done pro-actively by SEWRPC - - a failure of regional planning mirrored by SEWRPC's now 34-year-delay in housing plan preparation, and advocacy of a $6.5 billion regional freeway expansion and reconstruction scheme without a penny recommended for transit.

SEWRPC's small-picture management keeps validating its outdated regional land use plan - - always the agency's touchstone for study scopes and work - - and reinforces sprawl, and economic and racial segregation.

In other words, helps keep the region mired in its old ways.

In a word: uncompetitive.

A region where exurban and new suburban growth has been encouraged at the expense of existing infrastructure and available labor pools in the City of Milwaukee and the City of Racine.

And where highway expansion is draining the life from small town Main Streets and older suburbs: case in point - - SEWRPC's support for a quick, $25 million interstate interchange to an empty mall site at Pabst Farms.

Near subdivisions put on hold, as the recession kills housing construction and retail expansion, along with driving and highway need and use.

The City of Waukesha is holding a public hearing on Tuesday the 13th of January where it will roll out more details of its application-in-preparation.

The meeting is in its council chambers, at 7:00 p.m.

It will be interesting to see how the city separates substance from PR, and begins to answer not only questions from groups but from taxpayers who will face tens of millions in expenditures that are difficult to justify, and will further tax the entire region.

1 comment:

Boxer said...

Another great post James. You say the environmental and conservation groups are doing the public a genuine service by asking questions that should have been asked by SEWRPC. OK-- but shouldn't the media have been asking these questions all along--and actually doing some fact checking on the answers? Instead, the JS prints press releases put out by consultants and pseudo-scientists hired by Waukesha to reach a certain conclusion. Not to mention the DNR which has rolled over on its back waiting for a belly scratch and a treat. I'm not dissing the rank-and-file DNR staff who are pretty committed to protecting the resources. I mean the top dogs in Madison.