When I think of social justice in the Great Lakes, and the Milwaukee region in particular, the first thing that comes to my mind are the many industries and jobs that are built on access to water: brewing, mining, paper manufacturing, power generation, shipping, tourism, research and more. And then I wonder about who has access to the profits, wealth and skilled employment that those enterprises bring. Is that wealth equitably distributed?
Do all sectors of our regional society benefit reasonably equally from the money machine that the Great Lakes represent? Based on who I see at Water Council events versus who lines up for a free meal at The Guest House, I hypothesize that the answer is "no...."
And when our failing infrastructure leaves the poorest residents of Milwaukee with disproportionately high water bills, is that social justice? When water gets turned off because of failure to pay, and people lose custody of their children, as has happened in Detroit, is that social justice...?
As moderator, I tried repeatedly to bring the conversation back to social justice, but as I cast my line over and over again, the closest we could come was when Waukesha’s application for a Great Lakes diversion came up toward the end of the discussion. There are many aspects to this heated issue, but one that gets very little consideration is who will pay for the pipeline and pumps if they are built and then not needed?
Technology is changing so rapidly that Waukesha already has options that it didn’t have five years ago. Other cities are pioneering the use of recycled water and grey water. Household appliances continue to become much more water efficient, and native landscaping is becoming more prevalent, leading to a national downward trend in water use.
Waukesha’s application is predicated on significant growth in water demand, but other regions of the country are experiencing flat or declining water use, even as population grows. How will this play out in Waukesha? What if the pipeline is obsolete shortly after completion? Will that debt affect everyone equally? Is there a social justice angle to the diversion application?