For the second time in a few months, the water issue in the City of Waukesha has unraveled incumbents' hold on power.
The message to office holders? Water, as Herman Melville told us in Moby Dick, can be a blessing or a curse. A lifesaver or a killer.
These days, in the political environment, water is making it hard for incumbents to stay afloat.
There was the surprise election in April of political newcomer Jeff Scrima as Mayor of Waukesha. A critic of the plan pushed hard by incumbent Larry Nelson to eventually bring Lake Michigan water to Waukesha via a pipeline from the City of Milwaukee, Scrima won in a landslide.
Water was not the only campaign issue, but it clearly separated Scrima from Nelson, and Scrima won.
Now we have two incumbent Town of Waukesha board members - - there is a smaller and more rural Town of Waukesha abutting the larger, more urban City of Waukesha - - scheduled for recall elections July 13th.
This time the issue is entirely about water: Town residents, believing their board members had caved into a plan by the City to drill new so-called shallow wells in the Town to provide water to the City until the Lake Michigan supply plan was implemented, signed enough petitions to set the recall process into motion.
So on the one hand, you have the City of Waukesha roiled by controversies over its Lake Michigan water diversion plan, with the state Department of Natural Resources saying last week that the plan application is insufficient and incomplete. (Full text of the DNR statement, here.)
Which means Waukesha has to try and fix the application, and also repair or work around the split between the new Mayor and the Common Council and other city officials who want the diversion plan to remain as the city's long-range water supply solution.
A legal agreement says the City has to have a clean water supply available daily beginning June 30, 2008.
Yet you also have the Town of Waukesha making it clear that it does not support the city's effort to locate new wells in the Town, and will fight the City over that goal.
And some Town residents also do not want their properties eventually attached to the City's Lake Michigan supply - - as is called for in the Lake Michigan application - - affirming what the Town is saying through the recall process: leave the Town and its wells and the status quo alone.
But one way or another - - the City has to meet its 2018 legal deadline. (There could be other solutions, including greater use of filtration to remove naturally-occurring radium from existing deep well water; new wells near the banks of the Fox River; blending water; greater conservation or a combination.)
Bottom line: the City has multiple political issues to resolve, including:
1. The split between and among its top elected and appointed officials over the Lake Michigan application.
2. The split between the City and Town over the City's new well field in the Town.
3. The need to repair the City of Waukesha's diversion application as sought by the DNR.
4. Then convincing all eight Great Lakes states that the application - - the first of its kind - - meets the 2008 Great Lakes Compact.
5. Also bridging the historic mistrust between City of Waukesha and City of Milwaukee officials - - this time over the price of a potential water sale and whether the regional issues like housing, transit and development that Milwaukee wants addressed will be included in the deal.
That is a tall order for Waukesha's political leadership - - and that includes all the factions there: Mayor, Common Council, City Administrator, City Attorney and city Water Utility management.
Time will tell if they are up to the challenges.