Sunday, December 27, 2009

Waukesha's Water Diversion Plan Gets A Last-Minute Do-Over: Big Bucks To New Contractor

Waukesha continues to spend heavily on water planning consultants - - now bringing yet another firm on board for annual funding in the $125,000-range.

These dollars, while coming from water bill payments and not property taxes, are still public funds and hardly small city chump change:

Waukesha budget records show less was budgeted in 2009 to buy all projected supplies for Fire Department Emergency Medical (EMS) and Fire Prevention and Education Services ($111,293), or to run the entire 15-member Waukesha Common Council ($105,114) - - and that's just a fraction of the totals Waukesha has paid in recent years to diversion-related scientists, lobbyists, consultants, PR firms and lawyers.

Read on:

A document among many provided by the Waukesha Water Utility to this blog in mid-December indicates that the Milwaukee consulting firm CH2M Hill , at the 11th hour, will take over Waukesha's Lake Michigan diversion planning work that was handled primarily since 2004 by two Chicago firms, The Cadmus Group, and later, GeoSyntec.

This task was described in a November 16, 2009 Utility Scope of Services memo to Utility commissioners - - details and some of the contracting history is below.

Waukesha's long-anticipated water diversion application, the first from a community outside of the Great Lakes Basin, but within a county that straddles it as defined in the historic Great Lakes Compact approved last year, was to be released for comment in early December - - after five years of study - - but was abruptly delayed.

Promises, promises - - made by officials at a special Waukesha Common Council meeting with the Waukesha Water Utility in October.

December release, scheduled.

Why the delay, even though Waukesha has been telling Milwaukee aldermen that time is of the essence and paperwork has to be approved immediately to allow Waukesha to explore buying its Lake Michigan water from the Milwaukee Water Works?

The Utility memo explained that its long-time scientific consultant GeoSyntec had eliminated the position occupied by the main person assigned to the Waukesha diversion application project, so with $112,500 available to CH2M HILL from accounts that could have paid GeoSyntec into 2010, CH2M Hill will do this with GeoSyntec's unreleased, still-confidential draft:

"...refine, rewrite and reformat the document. The goals in the new work are to:

* Present a clear understanding of the Compact diversion requirements for a straddling county.

* Review and explain the science, engineering, and planning that are the basis for the Application.

* Provide fact-based benefits of the Utility's Lake Michigan water supply alternative in layman's terms.

* Prepare graphics and messages to explain technical issues for use in Application and public involvement communications.

* Review previously prepared and presented cost estimates. Confirm cost figures are in 2009 dollars. Cite all sources of both financial and technical information at the end of each section of Application.

* Organize applicable technical backup information for ease of future reference. "

That's seems like one heckuva rewrite, though Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak told me by email that he is confident in the outcome:

"We have been working on our timeline and I anticipate we will have something to be released in January," he said.

Waukesha has already spent heavily without an application to show for it.

Utility contract records [I will work to flesh cite a complete set] show payments to Cadmus, then GeoSyntec, authorized by the Utility that included $126,000 to Cadmus in two phases in 2004 and into 2005, $75,000 in 2005 into 2006, and $183,400 in two phases in 2008 and into 2009.

On October 10, 2008, a Utility memo to its commissioners from Duchniak said the then-current contract with GeoSyntec signed in January of that year was "for work to finalize an application for Great Lakes Water, provide assistance to move the application through the approval process, [emphasis mine] and to continue assisting the Utility in developing and implementing a citywide water conservation and protection plan."

Now the task to finalize and explain the application falls to CH2M Hill.

In addition to contracts with Cadmus, GeoSyntec and now Ch2M Hill, the Waukesha Water Utility (through its ratepayers) has paid out additional hundreds of thousands of dollars in the same time frame to five public relations, lobbying, and law firms in Wisconsin and Washington, DC, for advice on the diversion application process and related water supply issues, records show.

Before it's all over, Waukesha will probably hit a million dollars paid to such firms. That's a lot of of dough for a small city.

Time will tell if it was well spent.

Also: I can't resist mentioning that some of this last-minute application rewriting by Waukesha might have been avoided had the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources written or at least gotten started writing more than a year ago administrative rules to more fully implement the Great Lakes Compact in Wisconsin.

The DNR could have unambiguously laid out, with public input, exactly what constituted a complete, comprehensive and workable application.

Last-minute scrambling by Waukesha, in the absence of Wisconsin administrative rules, will not raise the confidence level in the application of the other seven Great Lakes states - - and all eight of the states must approve the Waukesha application.

All in all, hardly the way you would want to see the precedent-setting application be rolled out.

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