Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walker-Led PSC Involving Itself In Waukesha Water Planning

Word on the street has been that the Waukesha Water Utility had something up its sleeve to help goose along its Great Lakes water application, and that could be a PSC card apparently now in play.

We haven't heard from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission in this matter because there is no water supplier deal for it to approve - - but now with a 2-1 Scott Walker appointee-majority, the PSC has begun to involve itself in the already-heavily politicized Waukesha water supply issue, according to a PSC letter to the DNR dated June 18th.

One PSC commissioner, Ellen Nowak, is the former chief of staff to Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas.

The chair is Phil Montgomery, a conservative former state representative and 2005 ALEC Legislator of the Year - - meaning that the PSC should be a good institutional ally for pro-growth Waukesha to boost the application's bona fides.

PSC activity before a water deal is struck could come across as Big Government meddling in a selling city's home rule rights; a backlash across the eight Great Lakes states which signed the 2008 Compact to establish one set of water-conservation diversion rules would surely be counter-productive if it looked like the Wisconsin government had too heavy an agenda-laden hand pushing the application forward.

The letter - - from the PSC's water division administrator to the water division administrator at the DNR - - says that the PSC has statutory power to look into and approve water deals between Wisconsin utilities to guarantee that the arrangements are in the best interests of the utilities and their ratepayers.

When I get an electronic version of the letter I can copy, I will post it, but I'm sure PSC activity to push the application forward did not come as a surprise to the Waukesha Water Utility, whose General Manager and leading diversion planner, Dan Duchniak, is copied on the email letter.

The letter proposes that the agencies coordinate their activities now, and that "the DNR, with the cooperation of the Waukesha Water Utility," provide information to the PSC about infrastructure, costs and other matters regarding a water potential deal with the three Lake Michigan cities - - Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine - - that Waukesha has said are its options as the eventual supplier of diverted Lake Michigan water.

That is - - if all eight Great Lakes states approve Waukesha's diversion application, and a supplier is needed.

The PSC letter indicates it that the DNR may finish its review of the Waukesha application this summer - - an optimistic timetable, since, for example, the DNR has yet to complete its basic Environmental Impact Statement for the plan and the proposed return-flow scheme using Underwood Creek, and schedule and hold hearings on the document. 

The PSC letter says that it could finish its review of the utility comparisons in 60 days, and that the work it coordinates with the DNR would be included in the application when the DNR - - again assuming it will approve the application - - sends it to the other states for what is called the Regional review.

The letter acknowledges that the PSC typically does not get involved in a water sale approval until a deal is done, but says the diversion application approval process involving other states is a special case.

For which there is no timetable, as this is the first application of its kind.

Two Canadian provinces are permitted to review the application, but do not have a vote.

Waukesha has said Milwaukee is its preferred seller - - it's the closest of the three to Milwaukee, and Underwood Creek, near Milwaukee, is Waukesha's preferred route of the water's mandatory return to Lake Michigan - - but Waukesha is balking at negotiating a deal with Milwaukee declines to include Waukesha supplying some of the water to four smaller communities that are close to Waukesha.

That is Milwaukee's position, as Waukesha did not provide information about the smaller communities' water needs and public services that Milwaukee has said it wants to review prior to negotiations for a water deal.

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