Monday, March 29, 2010

For Wauwatosa, A Checklist Should Waukesha Wastewater Come Its Way

As has been noted on this blog more than once (samples here, or here), the City of Waukesha is planning on sending, on average, about 11 million gallons of treated wastewater into Underwood Creek in Wauwatosa, in order to get its wastewater to Lake Michigan.

For Waukesha, it is said to be the cheapest path to complying with the Great Lakes Compact, an eight-state, US-Canadian agreement that requires any water diverted out of the Great Lakes basin be returned to the source.

Waukesha says piping its wastewater into the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission system is too costly: another possible route back to Lake Michigan down the Root River through Racine hasn't been as high on Waukesha's list either since State Rep. Cory Mason, (D-Racine), said that city was going to become Waukesha's toilet.

Here is a link to the original quote; it now graces this blog's home page near its signature Great Lakes photo on the upper left margin - - a simple synthesis of some environmental and political issues afloat in regional water issues.

Waukesha currently sends its treated well wastewater down the Fox River.

Waukesha is preparing the first out-of-basin diversion application under the rules of the Compact, with its Common Council poised to affix its approval to the document on April 8th after years of study and perhaps a million dollars in consultant and related fees to prepare it.

The non-profit law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates has prepared formal comments on the application that includes the Wauwatosa discharge plan. It is well worth a read in its entirety, here, and I will reproduce some key elements at the end of this posting

MEA is highlighting Wauwatosa's significant political, financial and environmental stake in the application's review - - a process that will be led by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Eventually, all eight Great Lakes states have to approve the plan - - a process that could easily take more than a year or more.

I attended an informational meeting last week in Wauwatosa about the application; residents there are beginning to understand the import of the Waukesha plan, and I am sure that the comments by the MEA attorneys will help frame the discussion both in Wauwatosa, and by the DNR.

Here is the heart of MEA's comments on the application, with attention to Wauwatosa's situation:

...we believe it is in Wauwatosa’s interest, as an initial matter, to point out gaps and deficiencies in Waukesha’s draft application, and to require Waukesha to address them before entering into substantive negotiations over the terms of a proposed return flow to Underwood Creek.

With that in mind, we will itemize a number of issues and questions which Waukesha’s draft application raises, which have been repeatedly brought to Waukesha’s attention:

- Unavoidable Need: The Compact is clear that the need for any proposed diversion cannot be reasonably avoided through efficient use and conservation of existing water supplies. Waukesha’s draft is puzzling because of the complete abandonment of the city’s current water supplies.

- Alternative Sources of Supply: It is not at all clear that Waukesha’s application has considered all reasonable alternative water supply sources, and has evaluated how much of the requested diversion could be supplied by a combination of other sources.

- Reasonable Use: The Compact is clear that diversions are limited to quantities reasonable for the purposes for which the diversion is proposed. The use of water for growth certainly raises the stakes. According to Waukesha, its population is projected to increase by about 25-30% while average annual demand increases by 58% and peak daily demand for water increases by 87%. The real question is about using Great Lakes water for future growth and development more than to sustain the life and vitality and economy of the community which exists in Waukesha today. Those who will decide on behalf of the other States and Provinces whether Waukesha’s request meets the Compact’s requirements will want to know how much of the desired water is needed to sustain the people and businesses which are already in Waukesha, and how much is wanted for expansion. A thorough and complete application would answer those questions and explain or justify the volumes requested.

- Return Flow: The Compact calls for all used water to be returned back to the Great Lakes Basin, less an allowance for consumptive use, at a place as close to the place at which the water is withdrawn. Waukesha has proposed to return its treated wastewater to Lake Michigan via Underwood Creek and the Menomonee River. The cumulative impacts of this discharge are unknown and raise many concerns and potential problems:

Flooding: The City of Wauwatosa and MMSD have together spent approximately $150 million on flood management efforts in Wauwatosa and the downstream areas of the City of Milwaukee. What will be the impact of adding Waukesha’s wastewater flows during high flow periods?

Water Quality: Throughout most of the year, Waukesha’s treated wastewater contains concentrations of bacteria which are more than 9 times higher than the maximum discharge limits set by MMSD for its contractors (900 cfu/100 ml vs. 100 cfu/100 ml), and 20 to 30 times higher than the actual monthly effluent concentrations achieved by MMSD and its contractors, historically. What would be the impacts of sending such poorly treated wastewater through Wauwatosa?

What will be the impact of discharging Waukesha’s phosphorus and orthophosphate, which exceed new expected phosphorus limits for state rivers and streams.? There is already excessive algal growth in Underwood Creek and the Menomonee River.

Monitoring: What monitoring will be conducted of the impacts of water quality and quantity if Waukesha’s wastewater is discharged through the City of Wauwatosa? Who will conduct the monitoring? Who will pay for it?

Location: The source of the water is Lake Michigan, not Underwood Creek -- and apart from the extra cost of piping the wastewater all the way back to the Lake, there is no apparent explanation or justification for returning it in this manner. The Compact does not say that any community is entitled to obtain water from the Great Lakes just because other sources of supply are more costly. Similarly, it doesn’t say that it is acceptable to return the water by whatever means is cheapest.

- No significant adverse impact: Under the Compact, diversions will result in no significant adverse individual or cumulative impacts. Again, the current draft portrays an unclear picture on the impacts to the exhausted or over-stressed Southeast Wisconsin aquifers and throughout the Great Lakes basin.

- Environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation: Looking at the draft application, it is not clear that the benefits of Waukesha’s ongoing water conservation programs have been factored into its projected future demands, and thus into its request for Lake Michigan water. This is important for this precedent-setting application as the diversion request must reflect the successful and sustained implementation of reasonable conservation measures. The increased size of the requested diversion, the historical loss of industrial water users which constituted the largest component of the City’s usage, and the lack of specifics regarding further plans, commitments and methods of enforcing additional sound and economically feasible conservation activities all raise serious questions about the application, which need to be answered.

- Compliance with all applicable laws: In addition to requiring compliance with its own specific requirements, the Compact requires that any diversion also comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws. Among the many other applicable laws that need be addressed, and which have not been so far, is the Federal Clean Water Act. It appears that the proposed return flow will be a new discharge to Underwood Creek, which is already impaired for bacteria. As a result, it seems that returning the water in this manner would be problematic, at best, under recent Clean Water Act decisions. This isn’t addressed at all in the draft application.

Among the other applicable laws, particularly if federal funding is obtained -- which it is, of course reasonable and understandable for Waukesha to seek – are EPA policies regarding environmental justice and Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibit federally funded programs and activities which have discriminatory adverse impacts on racial minorities or the handicapped. To the extent that Waukesha’s diversion application is designed to serve future growth in population and in commercial and industrial development, which will be located at considerable distances from the low-income and underemployed minority populations in Milwaukee and Racine Counties, impacts on access to jobs, access to affordable housing, and access to public transportation for job commuting become very relevant issues for purposes of the Civil Rights Act.

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