Thursday, April 8, 2010

Water Questions For Tonight's Waukesha Council Meeting

Waukesha Common Council members tonight, will debate, and likely endorse a $164 million proposal to divert Lake Michigan water as a replacement supply, by June 30, 2018, for the community's well water.

Under the proposal, Waukesha is seeking to substantially expand both its average daily water distribution and the geographical areas to which it will provide water service, with long-term environmental and financial consequences and costs.

Is this why the eight Great Lakes states approved an historic water management and conservation Compact in 2008 that limits the reasons for diversions? To enable one community's growth?
The Waukesha County Environmental Action League, (WEAL), with years of experience studying, promoting and vetting water issues and plans, submitted formal comments to city officials on the diversion plans working draft.

WEAL's effort was a true public service. Their questions offer a solid framework for the council debate, so I am posting them in their entirety below.
The Waukesha County Environmental Action League (WEAL) is a 30+ year-old grassroots environmental organization whose mission it is to protect and preserve the natural resources of Waukesha County. WEAL’s membership includes City residents as well as residents of the surrounding townships whose addresses have recently been included in the service area boundary as drawn by SEWRPC in December 2009.
In addition to WEAL’s organizational work on the water issue, and our individual efforts as citizens and taxpayers, WEAL also works in collaboration with a regional and statewide coalition of environmental groups called the Compact Implementation Coalition (CIC), a coalition formed to ensure that the Great Lakes Compact be implemented as intended.

As you know, WEAL has been keenly interested and closely involved with the water issues in the City of Waukesha and surrounding areas since their beginnings back in the 1980s when City of Waukesha water was tagged as exceeding maximum standards for radium by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In November 2008, the City of Waukesha and Waukesha Water Utility (WWU) officials called upon WEAL and other CIC member organizations to help them develop an application (and application process) that would be precedent-setting in its excellence, thoroughness and transparency--and use best available science and practices to support its case that Waukesha needs another water source. 

The CIC response was seven pages of thoughtful, thorough questions, and expertise provided courtesy of attorneys, biologists, health providers, scientists, and activists, representing experts and average citizens of the SE Wisconsin and the state.

These many questions were constructed to address both letter- and spirit-of-the-law standards established by the Great Lakes Compact, and to help the City meet its stated goal of setting a high standard (precedent) for what is expected to be the first Compact application for a diversion outside the Great Lakes basin. Though many questions were technical and detailed, we believe that answered in good faith, with an appropriate level of detail, and using science as the basis, these answers would, in total, lead to the making of a solid case for a diversion, a result we could and would endorse.

When responses to the CIC questions were finally received in June 2009, many answers were incomplete, vague or confusing, evaded the intent of the question or were not directed to the question asked.

In some cases, a response took issue with the wording of a question and focused on semantics while avoiding answering the question, referred to another document or inferred that the question should not have been asked. Arguments were unsupported by details. Conclusions were drawn that were not supportable from the scientific studies cited. Some responses contradicted others. Science and thoughtful analysis took a backseat to the sales pitch. Math sometimes did not add up. A typical response was that “we’re still studying that” or “we’ll get back to you.” And no one ever did. There are numerous areas remaining where questions have yet to be answered adequately.

Another meeting was held on September 8, 2009 at which we were assured that questions would be answered and details provided once “additional studies were complete.” In a follow-up letter to the City of Waukesha and Utility dated September 19, 2009, Attorney Jodi Habush-Sinykin of the CIC outlined several issues considered to be outstanding, including, but not limited to:
  • the need for a more comprehensive evaluation of Waukesha’s water supply options and potential service area mindful of the Compact’s “no reasonable alternative” provision;
  • the need for a thorough, side-by-side analysis of potential return flow options to accompany the respective water supply options identified by Waukesha to date;
  • the value of Waukesha proactively committing to an Environmental Analysis protocol as a tried and true means of addressing both potential opposition and uncertain regulatory guidance given that any application for a diversion of this nature will comprise a major action under WEPA;
  • the importance of providing a meaningful opportunity for the public and other stakeholders to be heard in the public participation process.
The first two bullet points remain unaddressed in the diversion application of January 2010.

At the (Great Lakes) regional review level, in order to establish the credibility needed for seven gubernatorial approvals, a successful diversion application will need to build a good case, cite or include base studies, and make reasoned arguments that are supported within the document. Other Great Lakes states, even those following Wisconsin issues, haven't been living and breathing a Waukesha diversion. 

The City of Waukesha and the WWU must begin at the beginning with this application, including a brief narrative of the EPA ruling on non-compliant radium levels and subsequent lawsuits. Without this, other states will wonder what led up to the WI DNR’s consent decree of 2008, or perhaps assume erroneously that the compliance order was the originating event for the application. We understand that this may be unpleasant, but without context, the application will fail to establish the need for a new water source, if the case can be made.

In many respects, our concerns and comments have changed little since WEAL first formulated a series of questions for the City of Waukesha Common Council in February of 2006. We observe the following:

The City’s draft application does not meet the Great Lakes Compact’s diversion exception standard to exhaust all “reasonable water supply alternatives within [its own] basin . . . including conservation of existing water supplies” as a condition of making application for an exemption to the Compact’s ban on diversions:

Many of the earlier (14) alternatives were dismissed as “too expensive,” “too political,” or “not implementable.” The City will have to do better to describe just how costs were estimated and compared, what details were analyzed, and how that conclusion was drawn. It could be said, without too much of a stretch, that a Lake Michigan diversion option represents all of those things and more.

Furthermore, in eliminating 12 of these alternatives, the City relies on a 2002 Water Supply Plan that is nearly a decade old. Has anything else changed in a decade? Costs certainly have increased. What assumptions are going into the numbers that lead the City to assert that a Lake Michigan diversion is the least costly option? No party can make that determination until the City releases cost breakdowns to the public.

WEAL remains skeptical about any alternative that was dismissed due to its being “too expensive” without being updated and reanalyzed. WEAL continues to call on the City to show its work in making projections and cost estimates (broken down, not in a single sum) in a side-by-side comparison of all options and combinations thereof.

The draft application does not adequately justify the need for the 18.5 mgpd that is being requested, an amount that is nearly three times the average daily amount now being used:

Page 2-1: 10.9 mgpd maximum day demand for projected service area
6.86 mgpd average daily use

Earlier estimates of requested amounts ranged from 20 – 24 mgpd. This fall, the amount was lowered to 18 mgpd. However, even with this adjustment, the application fails to establish a need for the 18.5 mgpd, even if “10.9 mgpd maximum day demand for projected service area” is used.

SEWRPC projects the City’s water service area will expand significantly over the current boundary area. Also according to SEWRPC, large swaths of land (in the additional service area) are not buildable due to their designation as wetlands or environmental corridor.

Another large part of the land within the newly drawn boundary is already developed under township residential zoning of larger lots with private wells and septic systems. Residents in these subdivisions are unlikely to request annexation in light of higher taxes
and the already incurred costs of well and septic. 

In these developed sections are newer subdivisions with high percentages of unsold homes (even after years on the market), excess inventory of new construction, and an unstable economy - with a grim jobs outlook and tight credit availability - which may never recover to its previous level. Peak oil, rising gas and oil prices may make this type of suburban/rural living unattainable for many. Due to these factors, projections in population growth may never materialize.

According to SEWRPC, “only 15 % of the service area land is available for new future development.” Much of this land is scattered to the south, west and east of current city boundaries and in the outermost extremes of the newly drawn service area. These far-flung areas would require enormous investments in infrastructure to bring city services to this largely rural area. There are no guarantees that the land will be developed at all, or that it wouldn’t become residential development with private wells and septic systems.

Water Conservation Lacks a Future Plan and Details About Implementation:

Page 2-5 lists “Water Conservation and Protection Plan Goals”, and rates each idea on a “relative water savings benefit scale.” However, a listing alone does not constitute an actual plan. We would expect that while making a case to the WIDNR and the Great Lakes Governors of the exceptionalism of this plan, an actual plan should include a description of each plan component and how it accomplishes or progresses toward each goal, a prioritization of components (in the plan) with start dates and target dates for goal completion, quantifiable and measurable standards of completion success, an analysis of already implemented components, an estimation of conservation impact, an annual conservation budget including actual funds expended for years 2006 - 2009 (and on what), and projections for 2010 and beyond for implementation of components yet to be launched.

On page 1-3, several water use decrease percentages were given, but lack of supporting detail raises more questions about how these amounts were derived and what impact conservation made on the decrease. For example, the 31% decrease between 1988 and 2008 is correlated with an 18 % increase in the population during the period, but no mention is made regarding loss of manufacturing capacity during the decade and what effect that those losses had on the 31%. Was any usage reduction attributable to conservation?

The 11% decrease between 2005 and 2008 does not factor in the two extremely wet
summers of 2006 and 2007. As drought conditions were a factor in ’05, and ’06 and ’07 exceeded average rainfall for summers, how can the 11% be attributed to conservation? The draft also fails to mention what year (and month) the sprinkling ban went into effect.

WEAL appreciated the City’s commitment to proceed with a transparent, “high-bar” application under the Great Lakes Compact. However, we are disappointed in the resulting process. The openness and transparency promised early and repeated often did not materialize as requests for information and details were stymied, closed meetings were held at both the Water Utility and the Common Council, and, a number of questions have gone unanswered. Comments were not recorded nor made available to the public. And the following chronology will show how little time has been available for citizen input on the actual application.

Feb 23: Public comment (Committee of the Whole)
March 8: Public comment (Committee of the Whole)
March 18: Water Utility Commission votes to recommend diversion application to Common Council
March 26: Public comment period ends
April 8: Common Council votes on recommended diversion application from Water Utility Commission

If the Water Utility Commission were to fairly consider and weigh public comments, why is the close of public comments seven days AFTER the WWU Commission vote? And how can the Common Council vote on the WWU Commission recommendation if public comments were not all received and known by the Commission when it forwarded the diversion application?

Because this proposed diversion application will likely be the first under the recently approved Great Lakes Compact, its precedent-setting impact will be enormous on the legal tenets of the Compact. Because of its scale, the diversion will cost a significant amount and will forever alter the environment in two watersheds. For these reasons, its details should be well explained and well understood by all stakeholders, and all decisions carefully considered before an application is submitted.

In many of its iterations, the diversion application continues to insist that it seeks Lake Michigan water as the most “sustainable” source. WEAL challenges the City and County of Waukesha to become truly sustainable: to live within its own means, both water and financial. The City is not without water resources, as are many communities in the southwest. WEAL challenges the City to model true leadership by demonstration through practice and recognition that all resources are finite, that a Midwest city with reasonable resources, imagination and hard work, can learn to live and thrive within its means.
The lesson to be taken from Peter Annin’s book, Great Lakes Water Wars, is that seemingly vast, inexhaustible water resources can indeed be depleted, the Great Lakes and precious groundwater resources among them.

We appreciate your consideration of these comments.


Steve Schmuki, President
Waukesha County Environmental Action League

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