Friday, June 29, 2007

Milwaukee Not Prepared To Provide Water To New Berlin: New Berlin Not Prepared To Pay For The Equipment

Milwaukee officials admit what has been talked about behind the scenes for months: the city's water system was not engineered to easily push water out of the city and over the subcontinental divide, and upgrades will cost big money.

(The subcontinental divide is best observed as the hill on I-94 at Sunny Slope Rd. west of Milwaukee.)

For the record, I wrote about this problem in a blog posting four months ago.

But mainstream media, politicians across the region, and officials in state government have been discussing the issue as if all that was needed to ship Milwaukee water westward was the flipping of a switch.

That campaign, part propaganda and part denial, has been disingenuous, and now the facts are finally coming out:

Milwaukee's pipes and pumps cannot guarantee water delivery to western suburbs like New Berlin in Waukesha County during periods of peak demand, like hot summer days or during a fire - - the very situations that define a public water system's value.

And someone is going to have to foot the bill to make the system do what it wasn't installed to do - - meaning the financial decisions at hand are larger than what rates will be charged for water exports if a sale were ever approved.

Here's part of my posting from February 28th, written about the regional push for Milwaukee water:

"And who will pay for the additional infrastructure in both the selling and receiving communities for both the supply of water, and for its return for treatment?

"Waukesha is facing big capital costs for sure if it wins a diversion, but has anyone asked the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) if it can handle a large new influx of sewage for treatment from Waukesha, assuming that's where the sewage treatment would occur?

"And it is known in Milwaukee's City Hall that Milwaukee's water system pumps are insufficient to push water over the subcontinental divide to either New Berlin or Waukesha.

"Who will cover that projected multi-million dollar cost (the number $4-8 million has been floated) if New Berlin or Waukesha wins a diversion?Milwaukee taxpayers? New Berlin's? Waukesha's?"

New Berlin, the first Waukesha city looking for water from Milwaukee west of the divide, says it may pay part of the cost to upgrade Milwaukee's water system so it can get Milwaukee water.

Part of the cost?

And ask this question: why would the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources be inching closer to approving New Berlin's Lake Michigan diversion application, knowing that the most-likely seller - - Milwaukee Water Works - - cannot guarantee New Berlin water during the very cirsumstances that a community most needs water?

Bad enough that the DNR has been told by Wisconsin's Attorney General that it cannot administratively approve any diversion of Great Lakes water without the approval of the seven other Great Lakes states - - another fact not acknowledged by traditional media.

Bad enough again that the DNR indicates that it might approve the New Berlin diversion application without the approval of the other Great Lakes states, even though conservation and environmental organizations across the state and Great Lakes region have said that approving any diversion application before all the states have ratified the pending Great Lakes Compact is premature, and could set a devastating precedent.

But touting, or worse, approving the New Berlin application, thus suggesting implicitly that there is a reliable source for the diversion while knowing otherwise - - aside from the legal prohibitions laid down by the Wisconsin Attorney General in December - - is completely irresponsible by the DNR on multiple levels.

It's time that local and state officials, including the DNR, come clean with the public by acknowledging the real problems with the New Berlin application, and put their energies into getting the Great Lakes Compact adopted for Wisconsin.

And by implementing prudent conservation and other genuine approaches to better water management in Wisconsin, rather than pushing pipe dreams and rhetoric that add nothing to the debate except confusion, false hopes, and diminution for the Great Lakes.


Anonymous said...

Moratorium, immediately, on all construction west of the divide in Waukesha County.

It has been done before, a couple of decades ago, on the advice of SEWRPC to get control of the land -- and water -- before mismanaging it.

And if they want my water, and want me to pay to pump it there -- show me metropolitan collaboration, folks. Help to pay for my $1000 extra per choice student in Milwaukee that you mandated on us.

James Rowen said...

It amazes me that this entire conversation could be taking place with all the parties knowing that the Attorney General said the application must be sent to the other states for their review - - something the DNR apparently doesn't want to do.

Steve Branca said...

Very good column. Congratulations on your prescience. I can't help but think that DNR would be far better off taking a conservative approach to these applications and protect themselves from possible legal action and all kinds of hell from the other states. That would be very costly - again, taxpayers' money - and I would think a bad thing for the governor. Why wouldn't he see this and instruct the DNR accordingly? (Governor Doyle, if you see this issue as a no-win political situation, choose the right thing.) Furthermore, is there any public scrutiny of these applications? Any hearings? Any official process for comment? It seems like information comes out in bits and pieces without anyone putting it all together. Too bad the JS isn't the Washington Post.

James Rowen said...

As to a process for review:

The AG's opinion says the other states have to review and approve.

The DNR has not scheduled a hearing on the application. It could if it wanted.

It rather reluctantly established a comment period on the revised application.

When the original application was received last year from New Berlin by the DNR, its existence was announced by the State of Michigan, which had received it and registered strong objections.

So the DNR has not led with a democratic process in this matter.

Joshua Skolnick said...

As a Walworth County resident, with much of our quality of life dependent on the waters of our inland lakes, I know all too well about the critical nature of our water issues.

Its high time for New Berlin and all communities to get with the water conservation program through:

Eliminating un-necessary turf lawns - replace them with native plantings, xeriscape landscapes, edible plantings, trees and shrubs, etc that are less water-demanding.

Encouraging or mandating water-conserving/ water table recharging landscape features such as rain gardens, bio swales and infiltration trenches, as well as green roofs.

Encourage the installation of cisterns in new developments to capture rainwater for re-use, as well as retrofits to old buildings.

Reduce the amount of impervious surfaces in the landscape through pourous pavements, and promote trains for transportation and shipping, as the gravel bed of railroads is permeable, while additional highway lanes are not.

I am/will be discussing these alternatives in more detail in the months to come on my blog, Sustainable Walworth.

James Rowen said...

Sounds like we should all be reading the Sustainable Walworth blog. I'll check it out.