Monday, September 15, 2008

SEWRPC Water Study Set To Release Recommendations: Expect Substantial Reliance On Lake Michigan Diversions

Diversions from Lake Michigan to several southeastern Wisconsin communities will probably soon get a big push forward.

That's because a major regional study of water supply issues is reaching the recommendation stage, and documents indicate that most of the alternatives on the table include Lake Michigan diversion components.

For nearly three years, the water supply advisory committee of The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has studying the region's water needs to meet demand to 2035.

The study has cost about $1 million, and with all that time and money spent, don't look for the committee and its full commission to recommend anything approaching the status quo.

SEWRPC's staff and consultants are preparing to announce their recommendations at the water committee's September 23rd meeting:

Whichever recommendation or recommendations are made will have major financial, developmental and environmental consequences for taxpayers and municipalities in the SEWRPC seven-county region.

The name of the game for SEWRPC's policy-makers and their allies in the regional business community is Lake Michigan diversions, particularly to communities west of the Great Lakes basin boundary into Waukesha County - - a county that could see an additional 140,000 residents by mid-century.

After the committee hears the alternatives, and picks among the recommendations, SEWRPC has said it will hold public meetings on the recommendation(s) in October and November, and finish the study in March, 2009 for the full commission to approve.

At that point, the plan becomes SEWRPC's official recommendation to all the units of government in the region, giving its recommendations and the work behind them status and power.

The water committee, made up of 32 members, will be sorting through four major proposed alternative plans, and some "sub-alternatives."

Of those alternatives, most call for some diversions of Lake Michigan water outside of the Great Lakes basin, SEWRPC records indicate.

The recommendation alternatives are not online, but were released as part of a power point presentation last Wednesday to the full commission at its quarterly meeting, held in Kenosha.

One alternative calls for no diversions, but, like all the alternatives, calls for various forms of water conservation to help recharge depleted or heavily-used groundwater supplies now accessed by wells.

The other alternatives call for diversions of Lake Michigan water to as few as two out-of-basin communities - - a portion of New Berlin, and Muskego - - to as many as all or parts of 13 communities that are fully outside the Great Lakes basin - - Pewaukee city and village, Sussex, Town of Lisbon, Lannon, Genessee, Delafield, Waukesha town and city, or that straddle the basin boundary - - Union Grove, the Town of Brookfield, and portions of Menomonee Falls and Brookfield.

The different alternative recommendations also include variations of groundwater usage, water conservation practices and water renewal schemes as varied as injecting disinfected water into groundwater, or setting aside land to naturally capture and filter rainfall.

Some call for greater usage of Lake Michigan water by in-basin communities that would then close off their wells and help recharge the underground supplies - - a form of new Lake Michigan water usage that is not a considered a diversion, and has relatively little controversy attached to it, because the water would be easily recycled to Lake Michigan.

A big question is the City of Waukesha.

It is not yet clear whether the City of Waukesha will apply for and receive a Lake Michigan diversion, so SEWRPC's potential recommendations include scenarios wherein Waukesha does, or does not , receive a diversion.

Waukesha could opt to make greater use of relatively shallow, radium-free ground water - - an alternative that also comes with controversy, given that those ground water supplies also link to nearby marshes and feed other users' wells.

Waukesha has said it might present a Lake Michigan diversion application by the end of the year if it can figure out an acceptable way to return diverted water to Lake Michigan as required by the recently-approved Great Lakes Compact.

The basic alternatives, given their internal variations, come with differing price tags.

The range in capital costs is from $172 million to $478 million, and there are differences in operational and maintenance expenses, too.

If I were a betting man, I'd say the committee recommends the most expensive of the four main alternatives - - with some cost-saving items cherry-picked from the other alternatives that, for instance, would reduce the amount of land in the region removed from development for rainfall capture - - because the most costly alternative comes with the most extensive usage of Lake Michigan water.

In other words, SEWRPC would recommend the most substantial use of the diversion tool - - in conjunction with conservation methods of one form or another.

That may sound counter-intuitive - - suggesting that an agency will recommend a mostly alternative - - but remember, it's a recommendation: SEWRPC doesn't have to pay the bill or find the money.

Remember also that Ruekert & Mielke, the Waukesha-based lead consultant on the study, is also the consultant that is writing New Berlin's diversion application, and has or has had broad contracting connections across the region, from Pabst Farms to the Waukesha Water Utility.

What I think SEWRPC will do is to put its imprimatur on the heavy use of diversions and leave to the individual communities the discussion and decisions about paying for their share of the recommended plan's costs.

The higher the potential tab, the more impetus is given to the possible use of state aid, or the creation of a Regional Water Authority to spread some of the capital, and even operating and maintenance costs, across communities' borders.

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