Saturday, April 26, 2008

Waukesha's Diversion Dilemmas And State Legislation Coming Into Clearer Focus

Saturday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Illinois officials downstream from Waukesha and the Fox River, concerned about the City of Waukesha's probable application for a diversion from Lake Michigan, could formally object to the application.

That is because Waukesha has said it is working towards some measure - - just precisely what and how has not been announced - - of returning diverted water back to the lake via the Root or Menomonee River as required by the pending Great Lakes Compact.

Under its current procedure, Waukesha dumps treated wastewater into the Fox River, where it maintains the Vernon Marsh and water supplies downstream into Illinois before it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico - - but would not carry water back to Lake Michigan if Waukesha began discharges into the Root or Menomonee to comply with the Compact.

The Compact requires return flow to the Great Lakes to maintain lake levels there - - but federal law and the Compact also give a Great Lakes state, and Illinois is one of them, the power to veto a diversion to a community that is outside of the Great Lakes basin like Waukesha.

This is yet another illustration of the fundamental dilemma facing Waukesha.

If it doesn't pledge return flow, or tries to get by with returning water to Lake Michigan only in the colder months while keeping its Fox River treatment and discharge plant running in the summer when evaporation already draws down water flowing in the Fox and through thee marsh, then a Great Lakes state like Michigan, which historically has vetoed most diversion applications, might deep-six Waukesha's plan.

If it does pledge return flow, then another Great Lakes state like Illinois unhappy with the consequences of return flow also might veto it under current federal law that requires unanimous approval of diversion proposals by the Great Lakes states.

This conundrum facing Waukesha means three things:

* It helps explains why, as I have said repeatedly on this blog that the bill to implement the Compact in Wisconsin is apparently going to establish a period of indeterminate time during which Wisconsin could approve and advocate for diversions - - based on earlier diversion precedents - - that were achieved without the approval of the other states.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has argued that it has that power.

* It points out again why Waukesha's long-term water supply needs may have to be met with a combination of technological improvements to its wells, water recycling and reuse, other new wells drilled into clean, shallow underground reserves, and conservation - - alternatives that do not involve a Lake Michigan diversion.

* Waukesha needs to look much more carefully at its annexation policy, which has historically accepted virtually every expansion proposal from developers, and which then expands its water supply system and needs even as its laudable conservation measures show promise.

Currently, Waukesha uses something like 9 million gallons a day, but in its two confidential applications for Lake Michigan made to Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006, Waukesha sought 24 million gallons daily, suggesting that it expects its population to increase along with its total water needs.

Estimates for Waukesha County's population increase vary to 520,000 from its 2000 census level of 360,000, according to various officials, so that would mean significant growth in the City of Waukesha and other water-hungry areas of the county.

Where is all that water going to come from?

If Waukesha forges ahead with a Lake Michigan application, there could be massive litigation costs looming if one or more Great Lakes states exercises a veto.

And that raises the possibility that either the Compact or the current federal law would unravel or be overturned, opening the Great Lakes to wholesale and chaotic withdrawals without any rules or standards whatsoever.

It's a complicated issue, and all parties need to proceed very carefully so that unintended or unappreciated consequences are not the result.

No comments: