Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Will Environmentalists and $100,000 Help Waukesha Win Lake Michigan Water?

Word on the street is that the Waukesha Water Utility, and two engineering firms with which it has current or past contracts, are looking to partner with one or more environmental groups on a study and project plan to help the utility comply with so-called "return flow" requirements that are central to a successful bid to pipe in diverted Lake Michigan water.

The goal: creation of a green, stormwater-related project in the region that could also help the utility better sell the idea of a diversion to the other Great Lakes states, and to local and regional environmental and conservation groups that currently oppose a Lake Michigan diversion.

This is how the green plan would work:

The engineering firms - - Geosyntec and CH2M Hill - - would encourage an environmentl group or groups to submit a grant proposal to at least one well-known non-profit funding organization in Illinois, for $100,000 or more.

The grant would pay for a study of the possible implications, pro and con, should the utility commit to disposing of some - - not all - - of its wastewater into a Great Lakes tributary, such as the Root River or the Menomonee River.

Returning water to the Great Lakes basin is a requirement of diversions sought under the Great Lakes Compact to help maintain Great Lakes water volume and the health of the entire Great Lakes ecosystem.

The return flow issue is especially critical because Lake Michigan's level is currently low, and because diversions would add additional stress to a body of water already burdened with invasive species, runoff and other pollution problems, and multiple, future uncertainities.

For a story from Ashland, WI on a related issue, read here.)

For the last several years, Waukesha has balked at the return flow principle, and has argued that it should be exempt from meeting it.

But Waukesha has lately begun to study such an arrangement because it knows that return flow is required by common sense, Great Lakes water science and by the Compact.

And because of political pressures in Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes region that argue reasonably that an exception to return flow for Waukesha or any other community would set a precedent in an eight-state region, from Minnesota to New York, that could permanently harm the largest supply of fresh surface water in the world.

As part of the grant and funding scheme, the utility would agree to accept the green study's project recommendations, thus carrying out some level of green investment while simultaneously boosting the chances that a Waukesha diversion proposal, if made, would get the unanimous approval from the other Great Lakes states that a diversion request must receive.

For instance, if the study recommended it, the utility could agree to carry out conservation measures, or shoreline improvements, along whichever stream or river into which Waukesha decided it would use as a discharge point for some treated sewage for return eventually to Lake Michigan.

Waukesha has ruled out piping treated sewage back to Lake Michigan as too expensive.

To summarize:

1. Neither the utility nor its consultants would pay for the study.

2. The monies would be sought from an outside, non-profit organization, which would, in turn, fund the environmental group or groups, allowing Waukesha to say that it was not managing the study or controlling its outcome.

3. The non-profit funding source and environmentalists would direct the study, lend its conclusions their imprimaturs and add credibility.

The concept is reminiscent of a 2003 study led by CH2M Hill, in conjunction with a team of environmental and for-profit consulting entities, including the regionally-ubiquitous Ruekert & Mielke firm.

CH2M Hill has done past water supply studies for the utility.

The 2003 report used the City of Waukesha as a Great Lakes regional case study to illustrate how a community that was outside the Great Lakes basin - - like the City of Waukesha - - might perform an environmental improvement project to support a Great Lakes water diversion application.

That quid-pro-quo concept - - diverted water for green investment somewhere in the Great Lakes region - - was considered by negotiators who were drafting Great Lakes Compact amendments, but was eventually rejected.

The current, pending amendments, endorsed by the Great Lakes governors in 2005, spell out a set of different diversion standards and procedures to win Great Lakes water, and improvement projects are no longer suggested or required.

While such improvements can be significant, their locations were not necessarily tied to the specific area in which a diversion was being sought, and their comparative value to diverted water could not be readily ascertained.

The pending amendments, however, have been criticized by some Waukesha County politicians and business leaders as too restrictive.

In essence, it looks like the 2003 study has been dusted off and given fresh life by Waukesha's utility and contract advisers as part of Waukesha's diversion planning strategy.

All eight Great Lakes states must approve a diversion application to a community like the City of Waukesha that lies outside the Great Lakes basin.

Guaranteeing so-called "return-flow" of an amount of water roughly equal to what is diverted is required in the pending Great Lakes compact amendments.

Wisconsin has not approved the pending amendments; a state legislative committee trying to come up with implementing legislation has not met since December, and it is widely-expected that Governor Jim Doyle, who is also co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors - - the group that wrote the Compact amendments - - is likely to establish another working group to come up with Wisconsin's Compact legislative proposals.

Minnesota is the only Great Lakes state that has approved them, though approval is expected in the coming months in several other states.

One major potential problem: it is not clear if the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, or communities along the Root River or Menomonee River, could accept any additional downstream flow from Waukesha, even during modest rainfalls, without incurring major infrastructure construction costs, or stormwater overflows.

The MMSD is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on flood control projects - - details here at the flood control tab - - so while a spot project endorsed by an environmental group would certainly be of some value, it would not address vastly expensive issues of stream quality, stream capacity, erosion, and flooding prevention.


widespread panic said...

Michigan environmental leaders say they cannot fathom why the shipping industry is fighting a new state law meant to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species carried by ocean-going vessels.

The law regulates the release of ballast water into the big lakes by ocean-going ships, which can bring in species that wipe out native wildlife.

But shipping industry leaders have told state officials that only four cargo ships are known to empty their ballast in Michigan waters.

"It puzzles us. Why are they opposed if it's only four ships?" state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robert McCann said after a press conference Monday at Grand Valley State University.

State senators, led by Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, held a press conference with DEQ officials and environmental groups to defend the ballast law. They vowed to fight a federal suit filed by the shipping industry to overturn the law.

"They're suing us?" said Birkholz, who sponsored the law. "We should be suing them."


Jim Bouman said...

How interesting. In my blog posting of last week at "Water Blogged in Waukesha" [If I knew more about blogging with links, I'd have figured out how to give you the actual link instead of a title that you will need to Google] I mentioned the fact that Mayor Larry Nelson had dumped Ald. Tortomasi from the Water Utility Commission and appointed Peggy Bull, newly-elected member of the Council from a working-class district.

Word was out that Ald. Bull had been particularly welcome on the Commission because Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility Manager, felt that the Commission needed someone who had conservationist and environmental cred. Tortomasi didn't seem to fill the bill as an environmentalist, and Bull presented a better face to the community as a conservation-oriented public official/environmentalist.

Bull is a smart and thoughtful Alderman, who has gained credibility on the Council since being apppointed a year ago and being elected to the post in April.

I, for one, think she'll bring an independent and thoughtful point of view to the Water Utility Commission. It is deeply cynical and, sadly, typical of Duchniak and his handlers that they see Ms. Bull as a convenient bit of conservationist window-dressing on the Commission. I hope to be able to report that they have underestimated Alderman Peggy Bull.

I see her as independent. She's unlikely to simply vote to let the Commission invoke exceptions to the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law to continuously meet in secret session to scheme over ways to get around the Great Lakes Compact.

The Commission has a long history of taking votes on issues large and small that seem to always be unanimous. A recent search of the past three years of minutes (all posted on the web) found not a single instance of a dissenting vote from any member of the Waukesha Water Utility Commission. And because the Commission can (and often does) conduct business with a quorum of three members, this means that lots of decisions are being discussed in secret and
implemented by just three people. If ever there was a dissent, it would amount to policy being made by just two people.

It is time to expand the Commission.