Monday, October 12, 2009

Waukesha Has Lake Michigan Application On A Fast Track

Some highlights from Monday night's informational meeting at Waukesha City Hall on the city's probable application for a Lake Michigan water diversion:

* At a Common Council meeting later this month, Waukesha aldermen will be asked to authorize requests from three potential Lake Michigan water suppliers - - the cities of Milwaukee, Racine and Oak Creek - - for those cities submission of sellers' letters of intent.

* At a Common Council meeting in December, the formal application will be rolled out to the public for review and comment, with more meetings to be held that will give the public an opportunity to ask questions more directly than people were permitted tonight.

Officials and consultants spoke, or took questions from other officials, for 115 minutes of the 123 minute meeting tonight. Six written questions from a small audience - - held down perhaps bu having heard that only written questions were to be taken - - were handled by officials in a lightning-quick eight minutes; none of the questioners had an opportunity to ask a follow-up question, though officials who posed questions did.

* By February, the application will be forwarded to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a 90-day review that is called for by the Great Lakes Compact.

* Another 90-day review is called for by the other seven Great Lakes states, and their unanimous approval is required for the diversion to be approved.

There could be delays in one or both of these 90-day review periods that could push a final approval to the end of 2010.

* That would leave Waukesha seven and a half-years to complete a pipeline, presumably from Milwaukee, and a return flow pipeline to Wauwatosa and Underwood Creek - - a construction period estimated at five years.

* The capital costs associated with the Lake Michigan scheme would be about $78 million in pipeline costs, with an additional estimated $5+million a year in operations and maintenance costs also in the picture.

* Shallow wells (at the so-called Lather's property that is now in a Waukesha condemnation proceeding ) will also be pursued as a back-up supply in case there were a Lake Michigan pipeline failure; the city's deep wells with radium contamination would be closed, however, achieving system savings.

Customers running water softeners to treat the harder, deep-well water will be able to eliminate them and save some money, though clearly, rates will rise.

Waukesha officials repeatedly said time was of the essence, and they did not have the luxury to wait as a 2018 water quality compliance deadline approaches.

All this, of course, is predicated on there being no major setbacks in the application reviews - - and I have been predicting for some time that one or more states will find major flaws in the application - - as they did in New Berlin's far-simpler application - - which would then require major rewriting, even rethinking by Waukesha, and perhaps state officials.

Based on what I heard tonight, I'd say the major potential problems are:

* Waukesha's intent to send some diverted water under some conditions - - either heavy rains or drought - - down the Fox River, and away from the Great Lakes Basin - - something the Compact does not allow.

Waukesha says it will be returning water everyday to Lake Michigan. The questions could be: is the return flow enough, and to get to a required amount, can it include diverted water that is co-mingled, as Waukesha says it could, with some out-of-basin water that infiltrates through its water system pipes and towards its treatment plant?

* Has Waukesha adequately studied alternatives to a Lake Michigan diversion? At the meeting tonight, officials said they had dating back to a 2002 study.

We'll see if the other states are convinced that in those additional alternatives - - namely shallow wells to the west and south of the city - - there aren't water sources the other states will say meet the Compact's reasonableness standard, thus obviating the need for a diversion?

* Is too much new land included in the city's big new water service delivery service area, and is growth, rather than current water needs, driving the push for a diversion?

The Compact, a water management and conservation document, says the narrow exceptions to diversion prohibitions must be based on genuine need, and expanding a community's land mass and tax base aren't included.

Finally: two aldermen expressed concern in one way or another about whether a selling community (that presumes Milwaukee) can impose conditions on the buying community - - Waukesha.

These were references to the City of Milwaukee's well-known official policies that require a water-buying community like Waukesha to meet Smart Growth, affordable housing, transit and other developmental conditions in order for a deal to be struck.

It sounded like the aldermen didn't want Milwaukee to tell Waukesha to tell it what to do.

I think for a variety of regional and Basin-wide reasons that Waukesha's application has a tough row to hoe - - and let's not forget that there are some local residents worried about the money that will be paid in rates and fees to Milwaukee, not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in construction and pipeline operating costs that officials said would come solely from water rates (or perhaps with some federal grant help), but not through property taxes.


Bill McClenahan said...

A partial list of corrections would include the following.

You say, “Waukesha's intent [is] to send some diverted water under some conditions - - either heavy rains or drought - - down the Fox River, and away from the Great Lakes Basin - - something the Compact does not allow.” In fact, the Compact does allow it.

Waukesha treats more water at its waste water plant that it withdraws because, as with all water utilities in the region, there is infiltration of groundwater into pipes. If it sent all the water it treats back to Lake Michigan, it would be sending more than 100% back, because it would be sending water from the Mississippi Basin to Lake Michigan, in addition to the Lake Michigan water. This is contrary to the Compact, which says, “The proposal . . . minimizes the amount of water from outside the Great Lakes basin that will be returned to” Lake Michigan. S. 281.346(4)(e)c, Wis. Stats. Is your position that water should be diverted from the Mississippi Basin to Lake Michigan? No environmental organization that we have spoken to has taken that position.

You also say, “Waukesha says it will be returning water everyday to Lake Michigan. The questions could be: is the return flow enough, and to get to a required amount, can it include diverted water that is co-mingled, as Waukesha says it could, with some out-of-basin water that infiltrates through its water system pipes and towards its treatment plant?”

The amount required to be returned to Lake Michigan is the amount withdrawn “less an allowance for consumptive use.” S. 281.346(4)(f)3, Wis. Stats. The fact that Waukesha will meet this requirement is not in doubt. As to whether return flow can include some out-of-basin water, the Compact specifically recognizes the fact that infiltration is inevitable, saying water from outside the basin can be combined with water from the Great Lakes if the water is treated. S. 281.346(4)(f)4.b, Wis. Stats.

As to alternatives, the law is also clear on what it means to be a “reasonable water supply alternative” to a Great Lakes water supply: “a water supply alternative that is similar in cost to, and as environmentally sustainable and protective of public health as, the proposed new or increased diversion and that does not have greater adverse environmental impacts than the proposed new or increased diversion.” S. 281.346(1)(ps), Wis. Stats. Can you point to a feasible alternative for the city that is as affordable, as sustainable and with no greater environmental impacts than recycling water back to Lake Michigan? Use of the deep aquifer is already having significant negative impacts on regional surface waters. In fact, any use of groundwater, which cannot be recycled back to the source, will have greater environmental impacts than the use and recycling of Lake Michigan water – as well as be more expensive.

James Rowen said...

We will see if the shallow well alternative, though more costly, is considered by one or more state regulators here or elsewhere as reasonable.

Not merely preferable by you, but reasonable.

And I am sure the cost figures will be vetted by independent analyses - - inevitably.

Eight states can interpret the Compact and use their enabling statutes, and read and critique your application in eight different ways, because it's a political process.

What Waukesha thinks is reasonable might not be what Michigan or Ohio or Minnesota thinks is reasonable, or the DNR, for that matter.

The Compact is less a document to enable rare diversions as it is a document that calls for water management and conservation.

Waukesha has a good conservation program, but that may not be enough to convince seven other states that it is already time for a precedent-setting diversion to an out-of-basin community that is very close to shallow aquifer sources and thus wells to its west and south.

And to an out-of-basin comunity with a history of annexation that has a plan to expand its service territory eventually to a total of more than 97,000 residents.

Anonymous said...

here's the question I don't see being asked in the press:

Why should Milwaukee want to sell water to Waukesha? how could it possibly help Milwaukee?

Brutus said...

Does "co-mingled out of basin" return water contain radium? Also, once the GL water is pumped out of the basin too Waukesha, what would prevent the water exporters from taking all they want.

Brutus said...

Perhaps the sewage infiltration problems should be taken care of first. Usualy the sign of an old system. Un-less the entire system needs replacing, Infiltration areas need to be identified. No sense sending good water into a system that can't handle it.