Monday, May 14, 2007

Water Expert, Dissed by SEWRPC, Resigns From Its Water Planning Committee

The Saturday, May 12th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial reasonably touted regional approaches to both water quality and quantity issues for the area's entire watershed.

It rightly recognized both the work of public agencies and non-profit community groups already striving mightily to preserve and improve the region's priceless water resources.

And its suggestion that a working group on water policy spun off the non-partisan Public Policy Forum last year could be the core of a new regional water planning entity is an innovative editorial idea that is certainly worth pursuing.

Regrettably, the Public Policy Forum working group no longer has a representative on the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's crucial water supply study.

The water supply study will run up to three years, costs about $1 million and could guide water policies in the region for the next 50 years.

Pat Marchese, an engineer from Ozaukee County, was the Forum's representative.

He was also formerly the executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and beings great institutional memory and seasoned pragmatism to many regional issues.

But relations between Marchese and SEWRPC deteriorated after Marchese, as had been arranged beforehand with SEWRPC, showed a power point presentation about the Forum's work at the 5/17/06 SEWRPC water supply advisory committee meeting - - after which SEWRPC deputy director Ken Yunker immediately ripped Marchese for the Forum's failure to work as closely with SEWRPC as Yunker thought was appropriate.

It was basically the airing of a turf fight over who had the right to speak for the region on water issues - - SEWRPC, or the Public Policy Forum.

Marchese had barely finished making his presentation when Yunker - - not a committee member - - twice used the word "shocking" to describe what he said was the Forum's lack of consideration of SEWRPC's water study activities, according to my notes.

Marchese responded that he thought there had been ample consideration of SEWRPC's work, which he described as more technical than the Forum's broader policy focus.

And he also told Yunker that SEWRPC needed to do a better job educating the public about its work.

The official SEWRPC summary minutes for that meeting, available here, do not include direct quotations and offer nothing of the emotion of the exchange between Marchese and Yunker.

SEWRPC does not electronically record its advisory committee meetings.

(Yunker did not follow through on a suggestion I made after the committee's second meeting on November 30, 2005, that SEWRPC use a tape recorder and video streaming equipment to make a record of this extremely important committee's meetings.

The technology is not that expensive and could help SEWRPC move its woefully inadequate, barely interactive website into the 21st century, too.)

Having attended many SEWRPC committee meetings, my observation was and remains that Yunker's criticism of a citizen volunteer committee member in front of a committee of more than 30 members, with other guests present, was irregular, to say the least.

Yunker said he was shocked at how the Forum had or hadn't interacted with SEWRPC; I was shocked to see him pounce on Marchese after SEWRPC had arranged for Marchese to make the presentation to the committee in the first place.

My impression was that the episode marginalized Marchese, whose resignation from the committee has been accepted, SEWRPC records show.

It's a significant loss to the creation of public policy. Marchese had been superbly representing the Forum working group, which has done excellent research and is correctly praised in the 5/12/07 Journal Sentinel editorial.

He had also been among a very small minority of SEWRPC committee members arguing consistently that it should expand the policy focus of its work.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that when the water supply study is done, the committee makes three recommendations:

1) Leave everything as it is. (This is a throwaway.)

2. Recommend diverting water from Lake Michigan to thirsty Waukesha County committees. (This is a tease.)

3. Recommend diverting water from Lake Michigan to thirsty Waukesha County committees that agree to some unspecified water conservation and recycling activities - - with this new wrinkle - - everything managed by a new regional water supply agency designed by SEWRPC and aided also by SEWRPC as a contractor.

The model was the SEWRPC freeway study and final recommendations: Do nothing; make some improvements; or do what everyone knew was going to be the final, preferred recommendation: Do improvements AND add new lanes - - the most expensive proposal that more or less justified the entire planning effort in the first place.

This will pass the committee, heavy with water utility managers and public works' officials from seven area counties by somewhere between 25-7 (there are some academicians and state DNR representatives that may object to what in reality will be a regional water transfer, and 30-2.

And will pass the full commission unanimously, 21-0, completing what has been an elaborate dance with a million bucks of public money to help legitimize and facilitate transferring Lake Michigan water to Waukesha County.

So a word to the wise: SEWRPC considers water planning its territory, and others trying to get in on the action can find SEWRPC an obstacle.


Unknown said...

Hi James,

I met you at one of the SEWRPC Water Supply Plan meetings, but permit me to introduce myself again - I'm Kate Madison, a planner for SEWRPC - I've worked on the water supply plan and have worked on most of the data associated with the plan.

I do most certainly regret that Pat Marchese left the regional water supply committee, but his reasons for leaving are his own, and I would certainly hate to add to speculation, as you yourself have - leave it up to him to give a reason as to why he left the committee. Pat is a most knowledgeable and wonderful asset to any public policy planning program, and his input is sorely missed.

On that note, I would like to add that the Public Policy Forum report "Clean Water, Healthy Future" that came out in early 2006, did not acknowledge the ongoing efforts of the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Commission nor was any mention made about the status of the ongoing Regional Water Supply Plan. The PPF report politicized the ongoing progress that SEWRPC has made over the past three years, and in doing so has undermined efforts by the WDNR, SEWRPC and the USGS in all of our attempts to collect and analyze the best possible data available.

Please don't get me wrong - the PPF report did outline some of the political and socio-economic issues associated with access to clean water. However, our's is an effort to quantify and qualify whether or not a problem actually exists, WHERE it exists, how to move forward to resolve those issues in light of State and Great Lake Compact regulations(forthcoming), AND how to address land use issues that are most likely to arise over the next 30 years.

As both a planner and a citizen of the City of Milwaukee, I am more than concerned about the state of clean, accessible, usable groundwater and surface water. Please be patient about the outcome!
- Kate Madison

James Rowen said...

Hi, Kate; Thanks for posting your comment.

I did include my own observations of the meeting at which Pat was sharply criticized publicly by Ken Yunker, and as I said, I'd been to many a SEWRPC advisory committee session and not witnessed anything like that.

I carry no brief for the PPF, or for Pat. The PPF and Pat can defend their report and actions, should they choose.

But suggesting that it politicized the water study issue isn't accurate, in my view. The entire water issue, including SEWRPC's study as well as the PPF's report, is entirely politicized.

As it should be: SEWRPC is a political body, its creation and operation and work is always political - - not partisan - - but political, so I don't think the PPF or any other outside agency could fairly be labeled as the origin of the politics that surround regional planning.

I can't imagine that the PPF has undermined the data collection, as you claim. The agencies you cite have so much clout and credibility and knowledge: surely SEWRPC is not hamstrung by a report that is now more than a year old?

Anyway: thanks for the input.