Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waukesha Council Reaffirms Lake Michigan Diversion Plan

With four police officers standing authoritatively at the back of the room, an orderly public hearing and special Waukesha Common Council meeting on water planning Tuesday night began and ended without fireworks.

All the drama was low-key and parliamentary.

After three hours of public comments, staff and consultant presentations,and floor debate the Council reaffirmed by a 13-1 vote its earlier overwhelming support in April for an application for a Lake Michigan diversion it filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The restated support came in the form of a lengthy letter Council members crafted and will send to the DNR; in draft form, the letter would have told the DNR the Council had eliminated Mayor Jeff Scrima, a Lake Michigan diversion skeptic, as the city's contact on the matter.

That language was dropped by Council members unanimously in favor of wording that designates both Scrima and water utility manager Daniel Duchniak as DNR contacts.

City Administrator Lori Luther said the draft language had been designed only to make sure city staffers would immediately see DNR communications and not to slap down Scrima.

A few weeks ago, the Council - - reflecting its differences with the new Mayor - - removed his authority to carry out the City Administrator's performance view and assigned that role to itself [see comments below].

But adding Scrima back in as a DNR contact, thus recognizing his role as Mayor, suggested that Council members had made their point with the release earlier Tuesday of the draft language and chose to heed pleas from constituents who spoke at the meeting urging their elected officials to work more closely together.

And thus not putting the DNR in an awkward political and communications' position. Coming to their collective senses is another way to put it.

Scrima did not comment on these issues directly before the Council Tuesday, preferring only to ask questions and seek clarifications.

Presumably he knew which way the vote was going - - and with the Council backing off from keeping him out of the DNR communications loop, perhaps he figured, for one night, enough was enough. Just a guess on my part.

To sum up:

The Waukesha Common Council has now twice said it trusts its water utility staff and consultants who believe the Lake Michigan option is the overall best, least expensive and most sustainable future water option available.

Now the ball is in the DNR's court; we'll see if it wants to move forward with the application's review, or waits to receive comparative information on supply option costs and return flow alternatives it said weeks ago that the application had lacked.

And, probably not coincidentally, which environmental groups said months earlier was missing,

I would assume it would move forward only when it thinks it has what it ways it needs, in toto.

Eventually, all eight Great Lakes states will review the application - - thus will be assessing and vetting the DNR's analysis of the application, too.

You add that together with negotiations perhaps with three cities over a supply arrangement, and then contracting for miles of construction work, gaining easements and dodging or engaging in litigation at any step, and you see how complex and problematic is this so-called "best" option.

A few more highlights:

* Duchniak said he still intends, for negotiating purposes, to keep confidential estimates for what it would cost Waukesha to pipe in water from Oak Creek or Racine. In response to a question from Scrima, Duchniak said the estimates were done.

There has been talk that the additional expense to bring in water from farther-away Racine and Oak Creek, along with add-ons to one or more of those cities' infrastructure, could top out at $75 million more than the $164 million estimated for the Milwaukee supply.

Milwaukee, however, is working on its own estimates for all three potential supplying cities' costs; assuming Milwaukee will offers the lowest cost water supply option of the three cities - - and is the only one to use the crypto-killing disinfection method known as ozonation, it seems clear that Milwaukee indeed has a competitive seller advantage - - though Scrima and some aldermen are strongly opposed on financial and socio-economic grounds to hooking up to Milwaukee water.

Later for all that.

* In answer to a question from Scrima, Duchniak said he could guarantee the estimated $164 million cost for a Milwaukee supply and connection. That figure includes contingencies up to 25%.

* Don Gallo, a consulting attorney to the water utility, said a recent state appeals court ruling on ground water regulation involving East Troy and property owners near Lake Beulah and constitutional protections for state water resources further reduced the likelihood that Waukesha could tap into groundwater near the city as a future water supply.

One such City effort involving the location of wells in the neighboring Town of Waukesha has led to litigation against the City and the recent recall election defeat of two incumbent Town board supervisors.

"The handwriting is on the wall" for more groundwater regulation, Gallo said.


James Wigderson said...

One point of correction. The City Administrator ultimately answered to the Council prior to the change. What was changed was that the mayor is no longer responsible for her performance review. The decision of whether the City Administrator could be terminated could only have been made by the Common Council.

In Waukesha, the City Administrator is really a city manager by another title. He or she is completely responsible for the formulation of the city's budget and sending it to the Common Council. The department heads answer to the city administrator.

I suggested changing that three years ago when the position became vacant but the Common Council and the mayor at the time decided to leave it alone, only changing it to a majority vote necessary for a termination rather than 2/3.

It's a minor point but, as you saw again at the meeting, people have a hard time understanding it.

James Rowen said...

Thanks, Jim. I will change that.

Dean said...

I would also point out that Duchniak is following the Common Council's direction in keeping the other two estimates confidential. Duchniak has not been authorized to release the figures.