Thursday, March 18, 2010

Water Can Serve Regional Justice - - And Waukesha City Needs; No Contradiction

Midwest Environmental Advocates, the public interest law firm, has posted on its website the comments it submitted to UWM's consultants preparing an analysis of water's relationship to socio-economic issues.

The consultants were hired to perform a quick, 90-day review of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's draft water supply plan - - now in its fifth year of drafting by a 32-member advisory committee (one member of color, fyi) - - that preliminarily endorsed a Lake Michigan water diversion to Waukesha, along with other recommendations.

Waukesha is proceeding with an application to the eight Great Lakes Governors for the diversion - - a mandatory and unanimous approval that is no sure thing, given Michigan's anti-diversion politics - - with the first major step being Waukesha Common Council consideration set for April 8th.

That will send the application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and it is currently writing the scope of the environmental review it perform on the application when it is received.

The DNR is working from a weakened review position, having chosen not to write administrative rules that would have defined just what a diversion application would include, and without public hearings on those proposed rules.

The SEWRPC regional water supply plan, once the UWM consultants have finished their piece, will probably be adopted by the full 21-member SEWRPC board this spring or summer.

Yes, I know:

SEWRPC's studies and plans recommendations are just that - - recommendations - - and governments latch on to them when it serves their purposes.

That is how, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) got the cover it needed to forge ahead with $6.4 billion in regional freeway reconstruction and improvements: SEWRPC recommended it - - after performing a study with a $1 million WisDOT planning contract. That's how that game is played.

Or SEWRPC recommendations are ignored - - which is how the Town of Summit and the City of Oconomowoc let Pabst Farms be built on acreage (with millions in Tax Incremental Financing subsidies, to boot) that SEWRPC's supposedly all-encompassing, all-powerful Land Use plan had recommended be left undeveloped. That's how that game is played.

Then SEWRPC turned around and recommended that WisDOT hurry up and build a full-scale, $24 million I-94 interchange to serve a shopping mall planned, but not yet built, at Pabst Farms. So that game continues, too.

But I got diverted.

In its first water draft diversion application made public a few weeks ago, Waukesha's water planners jumped the gun, saying SEWRPC had recommended the diversion. I pointed out this over-eagerness to Waukesha officials and they agreed to make the wording accurate.

Of course, there is little doubt the full SEWRPC board will soon adopt the regional water study and its Waukesha-centric diversion recommendation, but let's not forget that SEWRPC's Environmental Justice Task Force, a citizen body that demanded and got the independent, UWM socio-economic analysis of the overall regional water supply study under way in the first place.

The EJTF will review the consultants' findings, so we'll have to wait for this admittedly confusing but very important process to play itself out.

A lot will depend on the final report issued by the UWM consultants - - and note: The consultants are still seeking public comment at this site, so weigh in before the end of March.

The MEA comments, also endorsed by others including the American Civil Liberties Union, are here. They are comprehensive and strong and are well worth reading.

Yet I was disheartened by a public listening session held by the consultants in Waukesha last week because their draft findings and recommendations took these positions:

1. Development in Waukesha will happen regardless of which water supply Waukesha elects to pursue (Lake Michigan, not wells, is the Waukesha preferred option, as is purchasing that water from Milwaukee, which is closer to Waukesha, and has better and cheaper water than two other potential suppliers - - Oak Creek and Racine.)).

2. So...the best way that the region's low-income residents could obtain a positive benefit from that water sale is through a "regional cooperation or intergovernmental agreement that could address some of the region's most critical socio-economic problems," with the 2008 New Berlin water sale agreement held up as a model.

Further, the consultants said low-income residents or households in the selling community might see an economic benefit through reduced water rates.

Here's the overall problem: these draft findings don't fully take into account the region's history and realities.

A. There is opposition in Waukesha towards buying Milwaukee water, and downright hostility towards any agreement with Milwaukee that goes beyond a contract for water-by-the-gallon.

Jeff Scrima, winner of the Waukesha mayoral primary in February, and others, are framing the argument around Waukesha's alleged "sovereignty," and against tying a water sale housing or transit or jobs, as Milwaukee city policy requires. See history here.

B. As a member of the listening session audience said the other night to Cate Madison, the consultant handling the Waukesha meeting - - water rates never go down. Everyone chuckled, and Madison conceded the point, but repeated that spreading a utility's costs across a broader customer base was still an advantage.

That's true, but I think we all know that doesn't really result in lowered rates and would not amount to much of an attack on regional social and economic problems.

And like the notion of a regional contract, it's a way to address socio-economic issues passively, or indirectly - - which is what happened when Milwaukee and New Berlin made the 2008 water deal for diverted Lake Michigan water to be delivered to New Berlin's middle-third.

3. The New Berlin agreement brought Milwaukee a one-time payment of $1.5 million above whatever is the state-mandated water per-gallon charge.

The check covered the 20-year term of the agreement. New Berlin took that approach because it did not want to get directly involved in transit line connections or housing or other shared services.

Milwaukee did not play hardball with New Berlin because it was an existing water customer (to New Berlin's eastern third), and because Milwaukee and New Berlin do not have an overall history as contentious as Milwaukee and Waukesha's relationship.

But you can't get too excited about the payment.

I pointed out at the listening session meeting that the New Berlin payment amounts to $75,000 a year - - and to a city like Milwaukee, with 600,000 people, that's about 12 cents per person, per year.

If there was an agreement made with Milwaukee reflecting Waukesha's projected water purchase at about triple New Berlin's - - and believe me, getting Waukesha persuaded to pay any regional premium may even be beyond the skills of Waukesha lobbyist Mike D'Amato, the influential former Milwaukee East side alderman - - that would put another 37 cents a year into a Milwaukee resident's pocket.

I know that lump sum payments between governments don't usually go to individual people. They go to a government's general fund for tax relief.

But in a billion-dollar+ City of Milwaukee annual budget, these numbers are drops in the bucket, fade in value due to inflation, and do little authentically to address the region's housing, transit and workforce deficits.

And if you back out infrastructure improvements that the Milwaukee Water Works will have to make to pump water to Waukesha, or impacts on and around Underwood Creek from Waukesha's return flow/wastewater discharge there - - who knows?

Maybe it's a wash, or worse - - without considering the added growth that will come Waukesha's way with an influx of ready, fresh, clean water, with some inevitably at land-locked and poorer Milwaukee's expense.

And let's not forget that New Berlin has taken its western third out of added development, so New Berlin is committed to a disconnect between sprawl and diverted water.

But Waukesha is planning the opposite. It's draft application says it will send Lake Michigan water way past its current water service boundaries to an additional 17.5 square miles to the south and west that could potentially increase the city's size by 80%.

The homes projected to be built in the added water service territory - - and will SEWRPC's environmental corridor acreage there be preserved, as recommended? - - are on lots in the range of an acre-to-an-acre-and-a-half.

No one is arguing that is so-called affordable housing.

In fact, Waukesha has recently reduced its citywide plans for multi-unit housing, as is noted in the MEA comments:

For example, not only did the city of Waukesha in 2009 reduce its targets for multifamily housing, but on Feb. 24, 2010 the city of Waukesha Plan Commission rejected a developer’s proposal to construct affordable multifamily housing. Because persons of color are more likely to rent than purchase homes, and more likely to have trouble getting mortgages even if they could afford to do so, such actions may well result in even greater segregation than projected in the draft Analysis, even in the city of Waukesha.

And no one is arguing that the new service territory will be served by transit, or that new business and industry in Waukesha will be linked by transit to Milwaukee, or other regional concentrations of high-unemployment. You can't even take a municipal bus from Milwaukee to Waukesha now.

In fact, the consultants found that the region's population, employment and housing patterns are going to generally continue - - which has made the Waukesha-Milwaukee pairing the most segregated for African-Americans in the country.

So if the region is really going to attack its overall lack of equity, and diversity, and social justice and move towards widespread economic benefits, it needs to use every means available, and that should include water - - a public trust resource - - as a useful tool.

The MEA-endorsed comments indicate, in fact, that federal law requires that kind of assertive path.

Again: the comments are well worth the read.

Especially in Waukesha, and at SEWRPC.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great post James. complex issue, lots of information here.