Thursday, May 15, 2008

Great Lakes Water Issues - - Lots Of Work Ahead In Wisconsin

Now that the Great Lakes Compact has whistled through the Wisconsin legislature, what's next on the agenda?

Trust me: the work is just beginning.

1. New Berlin and Milwaukee will expand their quiet discussions about a deal to move Lake Michigan water to that portion of New Berlin that is outside of the subcontinental divide.

The Compact establishes a process for New Berlin's pending water application to be reviewed by Wisconsin only, and because that permission is a given, the main issues left to open the spigot are principally financial and technical: how much will New Berlin pay per gallon, will Milwaukee have certain economic needs addressed in the payment schedules, how much will new pumps and pipes cost, and who will pay for them?

That could be quite the negotiation.

It will also be interesting to see if Wisconsin recognizes guiding federal water law and sends New Berlin's application, amended with a water sales agreement with Milwaukee, to the other Great Lakes states for their review.

That would be more than prudent.

2. Waukesha will spend $300,000 this year to produce a diversion application that will require approval from all the Great Lakes states - - a higher standard than faces New Berlin because all of Waukesha is across the subcontinental divide and is outside the Great Lakes basin.

Whereas New Berlin can easily return water to Lake Michigan through Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District infrastructure, Waukesha faces a return flow regimen that is more technicality challenging and more expensive than New Berlin's, given Waukesha's distance from Lake Michigan and current use of the Fox River for the discharge of its treated waste water.

The Department of Natural Resources will have to sign off on that return flow regimen, and since it could involve the Root River or the Menomonee River; new flows of waste water would have an impact there on river levels, flooding, water quality and community sentiment along the route.

Conversely, those return flow regimens would have impacts on the Fox River and communities downstream into Illinois., so for several reasons, Waukesha's completed application, let alone the others states' reviews, are farther off than New Berlin's.

And Waukesha will have to convince Michigan that the application is justifiable, something that is not a sure thing, which is why Waukesha is still pursuing water through a controversial condemnation in the neighboring Town of Waukesha.

3. Both New Berlin and Waukesha will have to demonstrate significant water conservation plans and results for their diversion applications to be justified and approved.

4. Attention will also shift to a regional water supply study being written by the seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

It is expected to recommend widespread use of Lake Michigan water through multiple diversions, and the DNR will turn to SEWRPC for technical advice when applications are created.

So look for an expansion of SEWRPC power and control: everything SEWRPC does conforms with its decades-old land use plan, a document and governing philosophy that has enabled sprawl through rampant farmland conversion and development, widespread annexations to the City of Waukesha and highway building to which it has given its official blessing.

Fresh water to already-over-developed portions of Waukesha County are a natural fit for SEWRPC thinking and the work of a favored consulting firm, Ruekert & Mielke, which wrote the New Berlin water diversion application, has contracted with Waukesha in the past on water supply issues, and is managing the overall SEWRPC water supply study.

5. SEWRPC's expanded role in regional water planning for a seven-county area could conflict with the new, watershed approach to water planning initiated by the MMSD.

The MMSD's water quality efforts reach into 10 counties because its territory is defined by river watersheds that empty into Lake Michigan, while SEWRPC's authority stops at county lines.

In other words, what SEWRPC might recommend as a diversion program in its territory could help or hurt the watershed approach initiated by the MMSD.

The MMSD is interested in water conservation, shoreline preservation and stormwater management because ultimately, it has to pay for all the downstream movement of water, its treatment, and its quality.

Water access and storm-and-waste water issues are intricately tied to land use, municipal growth and development.

What SEWRPC recommends and what the MMSD recommends could easily be in conflict.

It's all about balancing water quality and quantity, supply and demand, resource exploitation and resource preservation, short-term thinking and long-term goals, private gain and the public interest.

The Compact and implementing bill approvals are good first steps that address and resolve water policy questions, but accelerate or ignore others.

For Wisconsin, the focus should be on resource management, stewardship and sustainability, not just about how to get water in the short-term for tax base growth.

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