Whither The Vernon Marsh?
It's hard to get a read on the City of Waukesha's relationship to the Vernon Marsh Wildlife Area.
That's a 4,600-acre wildlife area in Waukesha County, and the City of Waukesha, anxious to nail down future supplies of clean drinking water, wants to annex 42 acres of land alongside the marsh in the adjoining Town of Waukesha as the site for five new city wells.
The plan is deeply controversial in the city, the town, and with conservationists who fear that the wells will harm the Vernon Marsh because the same clean water the city seeks to pump out of the ground also helps to replenish the marsh.
That's not to suggest that the city would seek to harm the marsh, which Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Fauber, a nearby resident, described this way in a 2001 article:
"...several foot trails lead into the area, which surrounds the Vernon Marsh as well as several wetlands that are home to a variety of fish, including northern, bass and panfish.
"The area, which is open to hunting during most of the year, also is inhabited by deer, fox, coyote, badger and beaver.
"Most of the users are non-hunters, [a DNR official] said.
"Bird watchers flock to the area, which is habitat for elusive species such as black terns, Forster's terns, American bitterns, long- eared owls, wood ducks, black crowned night herons and great blue herons."
In fact, for the last few years, Waukesha officials have been invoking the health and vitality of the Vernon Marsh, arguing that the marsh would suffer greatly - - perhaps even dry up and disappear - - if the City of Waukesha won permission to pipe in Lake Michigan water that it would have to return to the Lake Michigan basin.
That's because the City of Waukesha currently discharges water from its treatment plant into the Fox River, and that discharge keeps the Vernon Marsh wet because the Fox River runs through the marsh.
So on the one hand, Waukesha officials have repeatedly and passionately argued that the Vernon Marsh could not be sustained if water connected to it from the Fox River were removed to meet the return flow requirement of a Lake Michigan diversion.
But now they are trying through eminent domain to tap into the groundwater that also feeds the marsh.
Waukesha-area environmentalists, and property owners in the Town of Waukesha who are served by private wells that use the same shallow acquifer that the City of Waukesha seeks to access are rightly raising questions about the property acquisition and well-drilling plan.
Waukesha city officials, and the management of the Waukesha Water Utility that is driving the annexation and well-drilling plan, will need to convince the public and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that the sinking of five high capacity wells so close to a major regional wetlands - - the Vernon Marsh - - will not harm it.
City of Waukesha Aldermen and Plan Commissioners have thus far demonstrated little interest in publicly asking the tough questions of the Water Utility--questions of cost, tax impacts, and environmental impacts. Just how much water is being produced by the wells being treated for radium? How much are the two shallow aquifer wells already producing? How much more is expected from the Engler well that isn't even constructed? What is the cost of exercising eminent domain, including legal fees and purchase costs? (Rough estimates place this in the area of $570,000, for land purchase only, not including legal fees.)
Tomorrow at 10 am, the Water Utility and the PSC host a joint public meeting regarding Waukesha's proposed rate increase of 17% and ascending block rate structure. How does this latest move affect those rates and impact upon future rate increases for the Waukesha tax- and rate-payers?
The Plan Commissioners were admonished to focus narrowly on the question of whether the exercise of eminent domain would be in the public interest. Which public? The neighbors living near whose private wells would almost surely be effected? The hunters, hikers and birders who use the Vernon Marsh for recreation? The city residents who will pay for this litigious exercise? And then pay again for the well drilling, the pipeline construction, the pumping operation and maintenance? And pay again to make the neighbors whole?
There are alternatives. The Common Council has a responsibility to explore them thoroughly and make its decision only after all need is justified, explanations given, alternatives presented, and questions answered. To go down the litigation path is to repeat the City's recent history in avoiding compliance with the EPA radium standard in the first place. Doesn't anybody see the folly of doing the same thing, yet expecting different results?
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