Sunday, April 11, 2010

Across The Great Lakes - - All Eyes On Wisconsin's DNR

Environmentalists and especially water regulators from all the Great Lakes states and Canadian Provinces will turn their attention to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources now that the City of Waukesha's Common Council sent the DNR on April 8th an application for a diversion of Lake Michigan water.

A few things to remember:

Waukesha, which lies entirely outside of the Great Lakes basin, was until 2008, and the approval of the US-Canadian Great Lakes Compact, virtually ineligible for a diversion of water under then-existing US law.

The Compact, a water preservation and management agreement, set up a small number of diversions exceptions - - one of which allowed a community like Waukesha to at least apply.

The exception covers communities that lie within a county that somewhere straddles the Great Lakes basin, which Waukesha County indeed does along Sunny Slope Rd., site of the subcontinental divide.

What's important about this exception is that when the Compact was being negotiated mid-decade, it was the Wisconsin DNR that pushed for the exception standard, sources have told me.

So in a sense, the DNR is already committed to at least the concept of such a diversion.

Also remember: the DNR did not get busy to write administrative rules governing an application's content, or review and approval process when the state legislature adopted the Compact as a part of Wisconsin law.

And the DNR has a representative on the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning
Commission's 32-member water supply advisory committee - - which has drafted over nearly five years a regional plan that endorses a diversion to Waukesha - - but his participation in meetings was very low-key.

So while the DNR has agreed to a full-scale environmental review of the application, it is only reviewing what Waukesha put into the application.

Yes, the DNR has given Waukesha advice, but that is not the same thing as Waukesha having to abide by state administrative rules, which in Wisconsin have the force of law.

The DNR has to do its review knowing that the other seven Great Lakes states are watching, as they will all have a crack at the application when the DNR says it's ready for that regional examination.

All eight states Governors must give their approval, or the application is denied.

Among the things that stick out in the application, and which has raised red flags already among area groups concerned about sprawl; Waukesha's intention to ship some of the diverted water to a bigger water service territory outside its current borders - - making the service territory 80% larger.

And a a business coalition is now strongly backing the application, in part, because it will help Waukesha and its environs grow.

None of which is among the bases for the Compact.

The DNR did itself no favors by failing for close to two years to get the rules in place, but that is because the agency is highly politicized under the direction of the Governor's Office, where a kids gloves approach to Waukesha has been the norm.

Which, in the end, will backfire loudly if, for example, Michigan would cite an insufficient Wisconsin procedure and turn back this first, precedent-setting application.

We'll see,

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