Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Some Highlights From Tuesday's SEWRPC Water Study Meeting

Here are a few notes from today's meeting of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's advisory water study committee.

[Regrettably, SEWRPC does not transcribe, videotape, audiotape or stream these meetings; hand-taken notes by a staffer are eventually posted online - - sometimes delayed by months - - so if you are not there, you miss the details, nuances, and asides. I'm putting down a few highlights, and some observations in italics.]

1. SEWRPC officials told the committee their work will not be completed until November or December. That is because SEWRPC is adding a socio-economic analysis to the draft report as urged by the Environmental Justice Task Force. The analysis will be written by a consultant not yet selected, SEWRPC officials said.

It is unclear whether the amended draft report will be circulated at public meetings, as was the current draft. If I had to guess, I'd predict it will be discussed at a meeting of the justice task force, and a water committee meeting - - but not at another round of public sessions with a comment period. Continuing to treat this issue like the study's ignored step-child could come back and bite SEWRPC's wobbly credibility.

2. The committee addressed and then skirted efforts by committee member Lisa Conley, representing the rural group Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., to have her strong concerns about drug and other exotic water pollutants added to the section of the draft report that included SEWRPC's formal responses about comments made by the public.

Conley said the exotic chemicals were "a looming threat" that needed more attention now, citing earlier chemical dangers, like DDT and others that were disregarded for far too long.

SEWRPC staff and other committee members agreed with Conley that water quality is a big-picture concern that was not addressed directly by the Great Lakes Compact, which governs diversions and focuses mainly on water quantity issues, but said water quality was primarily the responsibility of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources or the US Environmental Protection Administration, or could be addressed in other studies.

SEWRPC agreed to add some language in the final report to address Conley's concerns, but not in the comment section or in the specific context of Waukesha adding its treated wastewater to Lake Michigan.

Over the years of the study, Conley, with few allies on a committee dominated by water industry, utility and local government officials, has persistently tried to get the committee and staff's attention to big-picture water conservation and quality issues that others at the table do not whole-heartedly embrace.

Among her passions have been rainwater catchment systems as a working water conservation alternative, and now - - at the Tuesday meeting - - a heightened sense of concern about water pollution and water quality.

3. Milwaukee's committee member, water works manager Carrie Lewis, told the committee that the City of Milwaukee's official position is that no diversions that are subject to approval under the new Great Lakes Compact be approved until the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources writes its administrative rules governing Wisconsin's review and approval procedures.

She pointed out that when the committee began meeting in 2005, there was no Compact.

Waukesha's representative, water utility manager Daniel Duchniak, said the DNR had indicated "they do not need to wait...this [action prior to rule-making] happens all the time."

Lewis and Duchniak engaged in some friendly 'let's-take-this-outside' banter: in the end, SEWRPC staff, looking for some middle ground, said it would work on language stating for its its final recommendations that recognized the need for full compliance with the Compact, but did not add today Milwaukee's official position as part of the committee recommendations.

I suspect this issue is not resolved; the committee's inclination to side with Waukesha on this issue will help move Waukesha's application-drafting process forward, but could put Waukesha's application at risk in the eight-state approval process.

That is because other states may see the DNR and the state as renegade, uncollegial regulators, with the SEWRPC committee in Waukesha's pocket.

4. SEWRPC staff at several points strongly defended the integrity of its land use plan - - the SEWRPC over-arching master plan document in place for decades and that is regularly updated - - that some environmental groups and activists are continuing to challenge as flawed, weak or ineffective.

Even inducing sprawl.

Some recent history here.

At one point, SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker acknowledged that some development in the region had occurred away from urban centers "regardless of what the land use plan recommended...but it was not recommended."

Also weighing in: SEWRPC's emeritus director Kurt Bauer - - the agency's first executive director, and now the water committee's chair and also for years a SEWRPC consultant.

Bauer directed the writing of the original land use plan and is very much identified with what is SEWRPC's corporate identity and seminal document.

Bauer has long argued that the land use plan is sound, and that if inappropriate development in the region had taken place it was because local governments disregarded the plan.

For example, Bauer has cited development at Pabst Farms on agricultural lands as a project that took place against the recommendations of the land use plan.

At one point in today's discussion - - during a presentation about regional water supplies that led to some discussion of the land use plan - - Bauer made this observation:

"All this nit-picking by the environmental groups on the land use plan is dead wrong. It's a good plan."

Final observation:

SEWRPC writes plans, but they are not followed. And SEWRPC does not believe that plan advocacy is part of the agency mission. Finger-pointing aside, why defend a plan or the processes that create them if they are ignored?


Anonymous said...

Anonymous, writes…
I wish I could have went to this meeting on Tuesday. In short, my response is simply this: Look at the people within SEWRPC (both Ken Yunker and Don Bauer) and their longevity to maintaining (or fight to maintain) the status quo. SEWRPC is a fringe organization. In time they will become less important. Think about it this way—they seem to be saying their regional land use plan is not always followed. What they fail to point out is that a community isn’t following this so-called great and effective regional land use plan. On the contrary, sometimes a community doesn’t follow it because there is nothing in there that provides an incentive for a community to build more green and new urbanist type developments. I just did a word search in the regional land use plan and could not find the terms ‘green’ or ‘green-oriented’ or ‘energy-efficient’ or ‘new urbanist(ism).’ Perhaps SEWRPC would argue this is a land use plan, not a housing plan, etc. Which is why they want to keep maintaining the status quo.

James Rowen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Rowen said...

To Anon: To Anon: That would be Kurt Bauer, not Don.

Interesting that word-searching the land use plan shows how out-dated it is, despite the regular updates, and statements by SEWRPC staff that the plan is modern, etc.

James Rowen said...

Note: I removed my original response to Anon. because of my own misspellings!

Can't have that, aina.