Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More Than One Divide in Waukesha: Mayor v. Chamber of Commerce

Readers of this blog and other people familiar with the political controversies over whether Lake Michigan water should be piped to Western Waukesha County have read often about the subcontinental divide.

By the time you finish this post, you'll also know something about another water-related divide in Waukesha - - this one between the Waukesha Chamber of Commerce and Waukesha City Mayor Larry Nelson and whether there should be interstate controls over moving water out of the Great Lakes.

Back to the subcontinental divide: that's the physical edge of the Great Lakes basin (think of the basin as a large, though irregular bowl containing the lakes) and is best visible in these parts at Sunny Slope Road, in Waukesha County, as the hill across I-94 somewhat west of Miller Park.

East of that hill, you're in the Great lakes basin and the Lake Michigan watershed. West of it, you're in the Mississippi River watershed, where water flows towards that big river and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the controversy swirls around the wisdom of piping water over the hill, because unless it is returned as treated water, it's lost to the Great Lakes.

And there are other unanswered questions surrounding diversion applications, too, including who will pay for the pipeline(s), can the sewage district absorb all that additional water for treatment, will water diversions also divert more jobs away from Milwaukee, can Lake Michigan handle the removal of millions more gallons of water daily to the suburbs, and so forth.

New Berlin has made a preliminary application for a diversion, and the City of Waukesha has announced that a similar, but larger diversion, is the only way it can guarantee high-quality water for its community, too.

Current US law requires the unanimous approval of all eight Great Lakes states to divert water over the subcontinental divide.

And a new set of proposed amendments to a 1985 US-Canada agreement would require communities west of the divide, like the City of Waukesha, to promise return flow and other measures through an orderly application process to win diversion permission.

The pro-diversion, anti-Compact rhetoric got hotter last week when the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce blasted the proposed Compact amendments.

The Chamber urged Wisconsin to severely water down that agreement in the Badger State's implementing legislation, and, according to media reports told Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson that was the Chamber position, too.

The Chamber objects to the Compact's requirement for unanimous agreement among the states because one state could block another's diversion request, though it is widely believed that if any state among the eight failed to approve the unanimity principle, the US-Canada agreement would collapse.

And that would open up the Great Lakes to unregulated water withdrawals far from the region: previous efforts to pipe Great Lakes water to the Western US, or to send it by tanker ship to Asia, prompted the Compact in the first place.

That's why the subcontinental divide has long been the physical and political barrier to diverting water away from the Great Lakes.

But add to the notion of "divide" a gap apparently now open between the stance of the Chamber and Nelson, Waukesha's Mayor.

Though a supporter of a Lake Michigan diversion, Nelson told a public meeting in Waukesha he called Monday night that he supported the Compact, and did not agree with the Chamber's advice about deleting the Compact's unanimous approval language.

Nelson's remarks did not make the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story Tuesday morning, but reporter Darryl Enriquez mentioned it his blog later the same day.

The relevant paragraphs:

"Nelson didn't hesitate to express his support for the compact, saying that it "provides a fair process for cities like Waukesha" to acquire Great Lakes water...

"That [the unanimous agreement provision] prompted a group of high-powered business and the corporate leaders last week to question whether the compact should be changed to strike the unanimous vote provision. They feared that a single no vote could doom a project like Waukesha's, and make it susceptible to the political whims of other state leaders.

Nelson responded to the statement by saying that changing the unanimous vote provision would "blow up the compact" and harm Waukesha's chance at getting Lake Michigan water..."

Though his office is non-partisan, Nelson is a Democrat. Fair to say that most of the Chamber honchos are Republicans, so the political divide in Waukesha also crosses into partisan politics and city-county relationships, too.

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