Thursday, November 15, 2007

Closed Meetings In Waukesha Not Withstanding - - Water Diversion Planning Seeps To The Surface

Waukesha blogger and activist Jim Bouman ferrets out information about Waukesha's plans to obtain Lake Michigan water - - despite more closed meetings held by the Waukesha Water Utility.

This is real public service blogging: We owe Jim our thanks.

State Capitol sources tell me that discussions continue between state regulators and Waukesha officials about possible ways that Waukesha might propose in an eventual diversion application to return diverted water back to Lake Michigan, though there is no resolution to the technical, let alone political and fiscal questions - - yet.

Without a plan to achieve this so-called "return flow," one or more of the other Great Lakes states will surely block the application.

Federal law requires than any diversion of water to a community outside of the Great Lakes basin like Waukesha has to have the unanimous approval of all the eight Great Lakes governors.

Creating a net loss for Lake Michigan fails basic political and environmental tests - - but if Waukesha can show a way to get the water back, then the city has a better, but not guaranteed chance for the other states' crucial approval.

Michigan has taken a pretty hard line historically, for the most part, against water leaving the Great Lakes basin, and though Waukesha has argued as recently as 2006 that unseen, underground connections connect it to the Great Lakes basin, Waukesha knows it has to guarantee return flow - - or risk its diversion application being sunk.

Some recent statements from Waukesha indicate movement towards return flow commitments, but what that means precisely isn't clear.

The problems for Waukesha:

  • Its current wastewater discharge is to the Fox River, away from Lake Michigan but through the large Vernon Marsh wildlife preserve: cutting off that discharge in favor of a tributary to Lake Michigan risks harming the marsh.
  • Some of the potential tributaries to Lake Michigan, like the Menomonee River, or Root River, may not be able to handle the new wastewater discharge without flooding, or eroding the river bank.

  • Likewise, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District may not be able to handle another major city's waste stream without substantial infrastructure investments - - raising the regional cooperation deal-busting "Who Will Pay" question.
  • Waukesha's apparent solution, sources say - - some discharge to the Fox River, some through a Lake Michigan tributary - - may not satisfy the other states that will argue that acceptable return flow to Lake Michigan can't be a partial, seasonal or unpredictable transfer of water.

Whether the state and Waukesha can figure out a credible return flow solution that meets technical, environmental and political standards is still a matter of discussion between city and state officials, I am told.

The MMSD financing issue has barely been acknowledged, sources say.

Additionally: The regional planning commission (SEWRPC) may recommend creating a regional water authority to push greater quantities of Lake Michigan water into several additional communities through a loophole in the pending, new Great Lakes water agreement (The Great Lakes Compact).

I believe this is where SEWRPC's nearly-two-year-water supply study is headed - - and I predict strong resistance to any Wisconsin community's diversion application if it appears to the other Great Lakes states that Wisconsin is looking for an end-run around this new, multi-state and international water conservation Compact that has been years in the making.

Anyway: We'll see if the Waukesha consultants that blogger Jim Bowman has begun to identify can figure out a saleable framework for its diversion planning.

And see if Waukesha gets caught up in any backlash created by SEWRPC's potential embrace of a new water authority designed to facilitate water transfers across the SEWRPC multi-county jurisdiction with relatively minimal reviews.

Not to mention what will become of New Berlin's efforts to win a diversion in the face of an Attorney General's opinion - - continually unreported by the media since December, 2006 - - stating that Wisconsin cannot approve a diversion to New Berlin or Waukesha without the approvals of the other Great Lakes governors laid out both in Federal law and the pending Compact.

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