Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Water War Or Breakthrough Opportunity?

It is a move with implications that extend far beyond a local border skirmish:

The Town of Waukesha is firming up a strategy that could block its larger neighbor - - the City of Waukesha - - from taking water that may effect the Town's residential wells and one of the region's signature nature preserves, the Vernon Marsh Wildlife Area.

The City has preliminarily approved condemning and taking 43 acres of privately-held land in the Town that is near the marsh so the City can sink new, heavy-pumping wells.

That is a ploy the neighboring Town is resisting, fearing harm to both Town water supplies and the marsh.

So the the Town has begun receiving advice from UW-M Prof. Douglas Cherkauer, a scientist who is among the state's leading experts in underground water.

The City already has its own private consultants and water utility staff to plan its strategy, and the entire matter is likely to end up in court from a number of angles.

The City's wants a new water supply due to two factors: poor quality in some of its existing wells that state and federal officials say must be improved, and rapid growth that brings in more city water customers every year.

Blocking the wells at the edge of the marsh could force the City to seek a diversion from Lake Michigan - - a strategy with a separate set of legal and procedural roadblocks.

And the City may end up in court if the owner of the targeted land fights over the price.

Making a wrong move could send one or more of these matters into court and cost millions in fees, for years - - with even long-standing federal water management law or a US-Canada agreement pushed into litigation should the City feel it is out of options and has to force its way to a new water supply.

(Waukesha has apparently ruled out, due to costs, the installation of filtration equipment on existing wells to remove troublesome, naturally-occuring radium.)

An archive of many of the political and legal roadblocks relevant to the City's water supply issues, is here.

But here is the good news: Cherkauer is also a member of the regional planning commission's advisory committee on water supply issues, so he is immersed, so to speak, in the latest information and planning options influencing policy-making in southeastern Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes.

Furthermore, Cherkauer has used his scientific background to have suggested, on a number of occasions, that the City could resolve its water needs with neither a Lake Michigan pipeline or well water under the acreage near the Vernon Marsh, because those approaches simply transfer a supply problem from one area to another.

He suggests that the City study removing water upstream from the Fox River and then returning it, after treatment, back into the Fox River.

In that way, the Fox River is kept flowing through the marsh towards the Mississippi River, the route that Waukesha wastewater currently takes.

The City of Waukesha is in the Mississippi River watershed, so its needs and solutions remain there, without being transferred to the Great Lakes watershed, and also with protections for the Vernon Marsh.

Avoided are the costly financial and legal issues associated with diverting water from Lake Michigan, then finding a feasible way to return it into a tributary flowing towards the lake without damaging the tributary and its banks, especially during storms.

Using the Fox River in a sustainable way, combined with Waukesha's 2006 conservative initiatives, just could defuse the Town/City water war before it starts and offer a regional and national model.

Bringing in Cherkauer at this very moment is akin to calling for a team's best relief pitcher - - but in the 8th inning and not in the 9th with the bases loaded, and the game completely on the line.

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