Friday, June 18, 2010

Great Lakes Compact Through Wisconsin's Distorted Lens

The recent angst over Waukesha's precedent-setting, opaquely-edited application for an out-of-basin diversion of Great Lakes (Lake Michigan water) - - culminating in the Department of Natural Resources' refusal to proceed with the application's review without significant reworking, is yet another reminder of the state's shaky relationship with the Compact that emerged from years of regional negotiation into law in 2008.

To the other seven Great Lakes states, and Canada's two Great Lakes provinces, the Compact was all about preserving Great Lakes water.

To Wisconsin, the Compact was also about making it easier to divert water, with the exception for out-of-basin communities which happened to be located somewhere in a county touching the Basin, like the City of Waukesha in Waukesha County, inserted in the Compact with the support of - - and some sources tell me at behest of - - Wisconsin's negotiators principally to open the door to a Waukesha diversion application down the line.

As people say - - "everyone knew Waukesha would come in with an application" - - which is one reason that former Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson pushed so hard in his city and at the Capitol for the Compact's approval.

It would be a way - - perhaps - - to resolve Waukesha's lack of compliance with federal drinking water standards.

What the DNR told Waukesha a few days ago - - and I posted the text of the letter so readers could see the agency told Waukesha, and its new Mayor - - an application skeptic - - that the application, as written, was unacceptable.

I've taken the DNR to task on this blog often for failing after the Compact was approved to write administrative rules defining exactly what an application should contain, and Waukesha officials have said repeatedly the lack of rules was not a problem because the DNR had given the city plenty of advice and guidance.

So, in essence, the DNR letter is just more guidance from the DNR, and is not an attack on the city, or agency obstructionism, or in any way an unfair process.

The problems with the application were evident before the DNR made them official:

The same flaws in the application were identified by environmental and conservation groups: Waukesha's drafters let those critiques go by the wayside because the water utility staff and consultants writing the application preferred their in-house-knows-best strategy.

So here we are:

Waukesha must rework its application.

Mayor Jeff Scrima wants more detailed information about potential alternatives.

Call it a time out to get it right.

Which should be everyone's goal, especially with respect to the Compact, and to Wisconsin's Constitution, laws and traditions, which say that all the state's waters are held in a public trust, and it's the DNR's mission to be the steward.

Waukesha's internal political debate over the new Mayor's positions on water - - which is a continuation of an intense election season that saw newcomer Scrima upset the incumbent Nelson - - is going to take more time to be resolved than what will be needed to craft and provide the required added technical work sought for the diversion application by the DNR.

Maybe Waukesha officials struggling over water policy, and over who speaks for the City, can reach a detente, or some equilibrium.

How that works is anyone's guess, in part because there are some Waukesha officials who are openly defying and dissing the new Mayor.

Talk about a difficult political environment, yet one that influences politics in Wisconsin, the Great Lakes region, and internationally.

And effects the natural environment - - something in our post-Gulf of Mexico disaster that brings clarity and urgency to the water issue here, too.

The DNR, assuming it receives the reworked application in a few weeks or months, and eventually - - after hearings - - approves it, then the agency essentially becomes its advocate as the application moves to the other seven states and the Canadians for their reviews.

All the US states must approve the diversion permission for it to be granted. The Canadian are role is advisory, but their critiques will be honored.

Which means at least two things:

The DNR will have its credibility on the table, along with the application, so the application damn well better be perfect.

As I said: Waukesha has its work cut out - - and the greater is the city's transparency in rewriting the application, the better for the application and its reception in the other states.

That's because the DNR - - assuming there is a regional review - - will have to contend with the perception outside Wisconsin that the state has been overly-focused on diversions - - remember that the application asks for nearly twice Waukesha's current average daily water usage and proposes sending diverted water to service territory acreage increased by 80%, and into parts of three neighboring communities - - while other states are probably more concerned with the Compact's preservation and conservation underpinning.

In other words, not the 'Waukesha exception.'

This is a long process. We're in about the bottom of the first inning.

So stay tuned.

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