Thursday, May 21, 2009

Water Conference Yields Some News

The Public Policy Forum's "Politics of Water" panel discussion Thursday at the Crowne Point Hotel yielded some news:

First, it was announced that New Berlin's application for a Lake Michigan diversion of about 2.1 million gallons of water daily to a portion of the city that is outside of the Great Lakes basin has been approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

The City of Milwaukee has agreed to sell the water: New Berlin approved a $1.5 million, voluntary one-time cooperation payment in addition to a water charge per gallon already established by the State Public Service Commission.

It is the first application green-lighted under the new Great Lakes Compact, but because a portion of New Berlin is inside the basin, only the DNR - - as the applicant city's home state - - needed to approve the application.

A probable application from the City of Waukesha for a larger diversion will require the approval of all eight Great Lakes states because the city is entirely outside the basin.

Secondly, Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson confirmed that Waukesha will forward a diversion application by the end of this year, but will ask for permission to withdraw 25% less water, or up to 18.5 million gallons daily, than the 24 million gallons discussed earlier, Nelson said.

Eighteen-and-a-half million gallons is still twice Waukesha's daily usage, and even with growth and likely annexations adding future water utility customers, it is still not clear why Waukesha would seek such a substantial surplus of water.

Some other interesting nuggets from the meeting:

Nelson said even though Waukesha had nine years in which to fully meet federal clean water mandates,  the city would be moving forward with its diversion application now because of the complex, multi-state review, and because there could be delays if groups opposing a diversion filed a lawsuit, or if one of the Great Lakes states turned down the application and Waukesha needed to litigate.

Nelson also said Waukesha would soon release lengthy responses to a set of questions posed to the city months ago by local and statewide conservation and environmental groups.

A link to the questions, submitted nearly five months ago, is here.

Among those concerns are:

How will Waukesha manage to send back treated water to Lake Michigan through a yet-to-be named tributary - - perhaps Underwood Creek, or the Root River - - without causing flooding or environmental damage to the tributary;

Will Waukesha will agree to close off its existing wells, or keep them in reserve;

Does Waukesha intend to discharge some treated diverted water into the Fox River through its existing sewage treatment plant knowing that the water will flow towards the Mississippi River, not the Great Lakes, as required by the Great Lakes Compact?

The panelists, including Nelson, environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin, private sector attorney Matt Moroney (formerly the executive director of the Metropolitan Home Builders), and Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy endorsed cooperation between Milwaukee and Waukesha communities on water planning.

Moroney said it was important, for pragmatic reasons, to separate water from other regional issues, but saw cooperation on water as an initial step towards a broader dialogue.

Murphy said a larger set of issues could be addressed in the revenue agreement between Milwaukee and Waukesha should a diversion be approved, or in a new water rate approved by the state public service commission for out-of-basin diverting communities.  

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission said earlier this month that it would add an independent analysis of socio-economic issues to the draft of its regional water supply study.

That analysis could pinpoint the impact of water transfers in the region on development, transit, land-use and housing.

When completed, the analysis could provide a documented basis by which these issues - - often at the heart of disagreements between the City of Milwaukee and its higher-income neighbors - - could be worked into water sales agreements in the region that met the technical and legal framework required by the Compact and another law, State Statute 227, that panelist Sinykin noted also guides water policy and decision-making in Wisconsin.

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