Monday, June 9, 2008

Dramatic Rain, Flooding Highlight Potential Water Diversion Problems

I'm not the only one who has raised the issue (here last year, for example) but let me again point out that heavy rains and widespread flooding in our area highlight a difficulty with water diversions and the Great Lakes Compact that hasn't gotten much ink:

In a word: Flooding.

How can communities like the City of Waukesha comply with the return flow requirements in the new Great Lakes Compact, and send millions of gallons of treated sewage back to Lake Michigan, without raising the levels of rivers that already flood in a heavy storm.

One return flow alternative being studied by the city and the Department of Natural Resources has Waukesha returning diverted water to Lake Michigan water using the Root River.

The Root River empties into Lake Michigan in Racine.

Waukesha now uses about nine million gallons of well water daily, and flushes it down the Fox River towards the Mississippi River - - which is out of the Great Lakes basin.

But sending treated water arising from a Great Lakes diversion to the Mississippi watershed does not meet the Compact's standard of returning diverted water to the Great Lakes basin, and, for good measure as close to the source as possible.

The City of Waukesha has said it will comply with the return flow requirements set forth in the Compact - - which is the right thing to say and do because return flow sustains Great Lakes' water levels and minimizes objections from other Great Lakes states which have to unanimously approve any out-of-basin diversion to a city like Waukesha.

Now note these two paragraphs from the Journal Sentinel's NewsWatch blog Monday morning:

"MONDAY, June 9, 2008, 11:15 a.m.By Annysa Johnson
Many Oak Creek roads still closed

"Flooding along the Root River in Oak Creek has left only two roads in and out of the city's south side accessible today: Interstate-94 and Chicago Road/state Highway 32, said Oak Creek officials, who expanded the number of roads that are now impassible.

"The officials said the flood damage estimate remains at $2 million, but reports of flooding in homes and businesses continue to pour in, Development Director Doug Seymour said."It's pretty extensive," he said."

And the Root River overflowed and flooded in Racine, too.

Here is a Channel 4 report.

So the political question becomes: do communities downstream from Waukesha have to brace themselves for bigger flows during rainstorms so that Waukesha can switch from well water to Lake Michigan water?

And Waukesha has said it wants to have permission to divert up to 24 million gallons daily, and other communities may either join that application or offer their own, and all will have to have return flow systems that comply with the Compact.

Are there technological fixes along the way, like overflow and detention ponds, or riverbank restorations, that could help the Root River, or the Menomonee River or other tributaries accept that much new water?

And if so, who would pay for that purchasing, construction, operation and maintenance?

Other return flow options could include the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission accepting return flow from Waukesha through new pipes, or expanded connections with MMSD communities, but again, that will cost big money.

And MMSD already has capacity problems, too.

Many people - - particularly in the private sector and in some legislative offices - - have pushed hard in favor of diversions on the supply side of the issue: Can we get water, how much can we get, and when can we turn on the tap.

But the return flow and treatment costs on the back end of the process are big issues, too, and with the US EPA saying major rain events are becoming more frequent - - the big rain storms of 1988 were called 'once-in-500-year-storms,' yet have been exceeded in some area communities over this stormy weekend - - it's a good time to raise more awareness about the return flow and treatment issues right now.

State Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said not long ago that the Root River return flow option for Waukesha gave him pause.

"We're not Waukesha's toilet," he said.

This weekend underscores Mason's concerns.


Anonymous said...

First you want a Compact, now you don't.

First it is the right thing to do, now it needs to be slowed down.

Make up your mind.

James Rowen said...

I always said I favored a strong compact, and I had posted often about the problems with Waukesha's return flow options.
No contradiction in any of that. It's all about stewardship of the water.