Friday, August 3, 2007

New SEWRPC Power Grab For Even Wider Regional Water Management

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission is at it again.

The result is going to be more sprawl - - endorsed and directed by non-elected officials who spend taxpayers money with virtually no oversight.

If SEWRPC is allowed to seize control of water management policy in southeastern Wisconsin, the taxation without representation that finances and operates SEWRPC will guarantee that sprawl and resource waste will become the region's signature planning outcome.

And efforts at the State Capitol by two working committees to draft comprehensive water policy planning for the state, then codify it in the Great Lakes Compact, will be skewed towards diversions of Lake Michigan water throughout southeastern Wisconsin - - away from water conservation and management - - arranged or blessed by SEWRPC.

That's too much power for a regional planning commission made up of 21 appointed commissioners, none of which represent the City of Milwaukee, which is also the largest municipality in the region and the most likely sought-after source of Lake Michigan water by suburban communities.

What is this all about, this inside baseball being conducted by inter-agency memo?

Read on:

Not content with guiding a regional water supply study that points to an inevitable recommendation to create a new regional, SEWRPC-defined authority that could distribute Lake Michigan water to sprawl-driven communities - - details here - - SEWRPC is now pushing to be in charge of who gets to implement a coordinated water management plan for the Milwaukee-area watersheds - - an area that extends beyond SEWRPC's seven-county region (Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Kenosha, Racine and Walworth).

The Journal Sentinel had editorially endorsed enthusiastically in May an inclusive planning effort for the watersheds' water quality and treatment plan that involved representatives from several community groups, business leaders, and University scientists.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and SEWRPC would play prominent roles in support of the effort with technical staff and resources from their respective agencies.

And that could work together to meet the goal of better, coordinated water quality management for polluted runoff and traditional, so-called "point" sources, like wastewater runoff in the region.

Not so fast to such an alternative, inclusive planning process, SEWRPC documents show.

SEWRPC has told state officials in a draft document - - SEWRPC Planning Report No. 50, A REGIONAL WATER QUALITY MANAGEMENT PLAN UPDATE FOR THE GREATER MILWAUKEE WATERSHEDS, Chapter XI PLAN IMPLEMENTATION - - that it wants control over the process.


In part, I am told, because SEWRPC is fed up with public criticism and the involvement of other organizations that the agency feels are on its regional planning turf.

So the import of the recommendation to DNR is:

We're in charge; everyone else can buzz off - - but SEWRPC expects the DNR to get state law changed to get SEWRPC broadened powers, and to pay SEWRPC to do the work, the SEWRPC proposal says, to the tune of $1.5-$2 million annually.

A revenue stream, which, by the way, would cover many SEWRPC operating expenses as the water supply funding dollars wind down.

(The funding proposal comes at p. 138 of the draft document, below:

"Accordingly, it is recommended that the WDNR [Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources] seek increased direct State funding of all continuing area-wide water quality management planning efforts in the State. The amount to be secured for each designated management agency should be based upon an agreed-upon overall work program prepared and approved annually, and should be related to the budget cycle currently followed by the State. Based on recent SEWRPC budgets for water quality planning, the great majority of which has come from the seven-county property tax levy and service contracts, it is estimated that about $1.5 to $2 million would be required to adequately fund continuation of the ongoing SEWRPC water quality planning work along with the expanded program envisioned under the regional water quality plan update implementation recommendation. " )

If approved by the DNR, to which SEWRPC recently delivered it, the same old-boy network of behind-the-scenes SEWRPC planners and their favored consultants - - the same crew that has given the region sprawl, farmland eradication, water over-consumption and overbuilt freeways - - will ultimately control water delivery and treatment options in a huge portion of southern and eastern Wisconsin.

Because whomever controls the water (both supply and treatment) controls development - - much the way railroad control guided development in an earlier era.

From the report's final index is this summary of the powerful, SEWRPC-created agency it envisions:

"A regional water quality authority would be an umbrella organization established to oversee all significant water quality-related activities in a watershed or group of watersheds. Such an authority could raise revenue through taxation, special assessments, sewerage service charges, and issuance of revenue and/or general obligation bonds, or could be funded by the State or the municipalities in the watershed(s) addition, the authority could have the power to enact ordinances to control nonpoint sources of water pollution that are generally not currently directly regulated by ordinance, including agricultural sources."

A short Q and A.:

Q. What do you think will be the outcome of that kind of 'planning,' and implementation.

A. More sprawl, and less public input, with the shots being called from SEWRPC's inaccessible Pewaukee headquarters - - an office building, by the way, that it bought in a no-bid purchase from one of its favored contractors, Ruekert & Mielke, the same firm that is managing the ongoing water supply study, and which wrote the New Berlin application for diverted Great Lakes water.

All in all: The DNR and the public is looking at a SEWRPC-power grab, funded by state taxpayers, contained in an obscure SEWRPC planning document, that cuts most groups out of what could and should be a very public and inclusive process.

You gotta admit it: SEWRPC does have nerve, but it has shown that it knows how to work the system to get what it wants.

In order to fully fund the three-year, million-dollar water supply study, it pulled $260,000 in Milwaukee County funds in 2004 out of an obscure, public-private mapping committee's account that is gathered from county deed registration fees.

Kurt Bauer, SEWRPC emeritus director, contractor and chairman of the SEWRPC water supply advisory committee also chaired the mapping committee and supported moving the money to SEWRPC, records show.

So don't underestimate SEWRPC's ability to play the inside, bureaucratic game, especially if funding and budgets are involved.

Final thoughts:

1. The DNR would be crazy to endorse the SEWRPC power play, and if does, the DNR would sacrifice what remains of its credibility in southeastern Wisconsin. The DNR's indifference to air pollution and suburban diversions of Lake Michigan water have left the agency on the thinnest public relations and policy-making ice possible in southeastern Wisconsin.

2. Instead of letting SEWRPC take charge of all water planning in the region, the DNR and regional officials should advise SEWRPC that it needs to better coordinate transportation, land-use, and housing recommendations (SEWRPC has not written a housing plan for the region since 1975).

3. The DNR and all the other organizations with an interest in these issues should work on water management matters together.


SEWRPC can be at the table, but they should not be put in charge, and the DNR needs to make that crystal-clear.


citydem said...

SEWRPC is one of the greatest enemies of the people of Milwaukee. The Milwaukee legislative delegation should wake up before it's too late.

Steve Branca said...

Back in my days in the Urban Planning program at UWM, the late '70s, regionalism had an entirely different definition than it does now. At the time, planners recognized that a lack of regional planning led to suburban sprawl that was fueled by sucking resources out of the central city. These cities got progressively weaker financially as a result. Regionalism was a response to bring equity to the process: fiscal equity, social equity, political equity. The result of the planning process would be more efficient use of taxpayer money, efficient use of land, and better quality of life especially for those left behind by suburban growth.

Today regionalism means something very different, and Sewrpc exemplifies this new approach, which is to utilize the resources of the region to guard the investments made in the suburbs behind a smokescreen of claims to rational analysis.

Sewrpc is heavily controlled by the state, leaving very little opportunity for local interests to influence policies. On highways, they basically do the state DOT's bidding. Citizens of the region have no idea of the effect Sewrpc has on their daily lives. The agency is relentlessly suburban-oriented, and make it a point that that orientation isn't threatened.

They are structured to minimize accountability to the public, to work behind closed doors, to seat a commission that has the perspectives that they choose, and to exclude large portions of the region's population from any input whatsoever. If they were held a truly regional perspective they would insist on a diversity of interests among the commissioners, and would demand that there be proper representation from the City of Milwaukee.

Water is a regional issue in that ground a surface water recognize no political boundaries. This is exactly the kind of issue that a regional planning group should take on, so a regional planning process isn't the issue. Sewrpc is the issue. They have proven to be incapable of, if not hostile to, planning for equitable use of the public's resources. Their obeisance to the state further distances them from the public they supposedly serve, but this is part of the state's design, too.

Accountability is lacking. It is no wonder that special interests prevail. When citizens abrogate their civic responsibilities - or are denied the opportunity to meet them - special interests fill the vacuum. That's a basic law of politics. The challenge is to bring Sewrpc to heel, to act like a public agency, to answer to its constituency, and to fulfill its purpose to improve the lives of all the citizens of the region.

How? Decertification would be very effective; dismantle it and start over. There are regional planning commissions all over the country that are structured differently than ours, that are more responsive to and representative of inner-city populations, more open in their processes, and therefore more respected in their regions. Sewrpc is mired in the '50s which keeps regional policy non-responsive to contemporary thinking.

I've said this many times before, and say so again in this context. The MILWAUKEE region must emulate or exceed the progressive policies of other regions, or forever be a backwater. Sewrpc is holding us back. The Journal-Sentinel is holding us back. DNR is holding us back. Our own lack of leadership is holding us back. If anyone wonders why we aren't the economic powerhouse some think we should be, they need look no further than the policies that are forced upon us.

Sorry this is so long. I just get really frustrated when I see such bad "planning" controlled by exactly the wrong people, over and over again.

James Rowen said...

This line in Steve Branca's excellent comment (and Steve, you should really launch a blog. It would be very useful, given your baackground...)jumped out at me:

"SEWRPC is mired in the '50s which keeps regional policy non-responsive to contemporary thinking."

Good summary.