Monday, February 8, 2010

For Waukesha's Water Diversion, The Power Play Begins

It didn't get much play last week, so let's go back to word that the region's private sector power brokers - - I reprinted their text - - created a coalition of chambers of commerce and large businesses to influence the Waukesha water issue.

Waukesha's quest for a Lake Michigan diversion, they say, should be granted because it is now the key to the region's definition as a water hub - - a subjective label that is still sounds murky to me.

Said the coalition: “We believe our own ‘backyard’ challenges, such as the city of Waukesha’s need to attain court-ordered radium compliance, must be solved with broad community support for this region to become a true ‘water hub.’”

Let's be clear: No one argues against tWaukesha's need to provide cleaner water and its customers to have the best water possible.

Of course, omitted from the talk about Waukesha's current water woes is independent and comparative evaluation of all supply alternatives, and their financial costs, and their environmental consequences, so everyone sees what is the best alternative.

And we don't hear much anymore about the years of costly court battles Waukesha foolishly lawyered to try - - unsuccessfully - - and persuade the federal government to ease the very drinking water radium standard the city is finally, years later, pledged to meet through finding its new water supply source.

But the business honchos are changing the subject:

They want us to believe that our very identity and success as a region requires the seamless overlay of Waukesha's water quality need with its water quantity aspiration.

That's a big apples-to-oranges-to zucchini comparison.

The coalition is deflecting us from this fact: Waukesha's draft application for Lake Michigan water seeks permission to acquire far more water than it now uses - - in part to serve to large swaths of open land south and west of Waukesha's that significantly expands the size of the city.

Maybe distraction is the wrong word, as that expansion and concomitant growth in Waukesha would be fine with the coalition's Waukesha-based businesses.

And for the coalition's Wauwatosa-based businesses: Waukesha is planning to channel its wastewater back to Lake Michigan in a grand, multi-million gallon-per-day-in-perpetuity wdump into Underwood Creek - - in Wauwatosa.

This means that despite all the regional 'we're-all-in-this-together' talk, the Waukesha diversion has winners and losers.

'Tosa's backyard becomes a commode.

Waukesha gets expansion outside the Great Lakes basin- - and through government intervention, not market forces, mind you - - as jobs and tax base from the diversion follow the water from the selling community (most likely Milwaukee) to the buyer (Waukesha).

So we - - the 'region?' - - can become a "true water hub."

This repeats and replays the region's government-enabled growth pattern courtesy of the Waukesha County-based Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and its 50 years of planning.

Waukesha city and county grow and get wealthier, Milwaukee city and county recede and get poorer.

The City of Milwaukee is land-locked by state law.

The City of Waukesha is free to keep annexing, and will enhance the new lands with Lake Michigan water, using a SEWRPC-supplied map.

Milwaukee city and county sacrificed land and tax base for SEWRPC-endorsed freeway expansion and Waukesha city and county commuters get the benefit.

Waukesha County killed regional light rail and there isn't a bus line from Milwaukee's downtown to Waukesha's downtown.

And there isn't a direct bus line from the City of Milwaukee to the Waukesha County close-in City of New Berlin, where Lake Michigan water has already been sent, and where officials have promised without follow-through to get serious about transit connections.

The most recent diversion for New Berlin goes to the heart of its Industrial Park - - a job center inaccessible by direct bus line from Milwaukee.

So why should anyone think that bringing Lake Michigan water to more-distant Waukesha - - where aldermen have already said any water deal with Milwaukee should not address regional, or cooperative ventures or issues such as transit - - will help the Milwaukee-centered regional economy?

Through what trick of trickle-down economics will water sale benefits accrue to Milwaukee?

Here is what this talk of a Waukesha-focused water hub keeps missing:

The vast majority of the people in the region - - whether defined by SEWRPC's seven-county borders, the Milwaukee-Waukesha urban pair, the federally-drawn Milwaukee/Waukesha/Washington/Ozaukee Counties' census-related designation, or the area's natural lake and rivers' watersheds - - live in the Great Lakes the City of Milwaukee.

The region already has a hub - - it already has a center: like it or not, that's the City of Milwaukee - - and Milwaukee is the region's economic hub, too, encompassing the Lakeshore cities and smaller communities south to the Illinois border.

So - - if the business community wants to be intellectually honest about water's value and accurate about geography, socio-economic conditions, and the region's success as well, it should do this:

Draw a line around the Milwaukee central city, its near south and west sides, and also to the edges at industrially-challenged West Allis, West Milwaukee, Cudahy and South Milwaukee, and say - - "this is where public policy and business advocacy should direct water to promote development."

And "transit expansion to and affordable housing should be required of any out-of-basin community seeking in-basin water."

That's how you declare yourself a water hub.

There's a regional development plan that takes advantage of our proximity to Lake Michigan - - and its less politically-contentious than any straight-forward tax sharing between water buyers and sellers - - and it recognizes who's the hub and who's a spoke.

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