Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Walker, Waukesha Water Utility Deserve PR Hogwash Award

And I say, "hogwash" because this is a professional blog with standards to keep and expectations to meet and I won't throw it all away over the way two public officials are spinning basic realities about the Waukesha water diversion application.

Begin with this story - - a Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) report - - on the long-stalled City of Waukesha application for a diversion of Lake Michigan water. And it's great that WPR got all this on the record.

This is the headline:  

Walker Says State Will Take Time To Consider Waukesha's Bid To Use Lake Michigan Water
Yes, it's true that the state is taking time to consider the city's bid, but don't get the impression that's because Walker called his staff and DNR personnel together and said, 'Take your time, folks, we've got to get this right.'

It's because the application keeps raising questions, and that sets back timetables.

It's not that Walker chooses to take more time. It's that he has no other choice.

Here are the realities that explain why the state is taking time consider Waukesha's bid:

*  The application has had fundamental flaws from the beginning, among them Waukesha's intention, even as its daily average usage is falling, to seek more water than it is using and send some of the diverted water to undeveloped area
s at the city's edges and to some neighboring towns that do not have water shortages or crises and have not applied for a water diversion on their own.

*  The application - - approved by the Waukesha Common Council in April, 2010 and transmitted shortly thereafter to the DNR - - has had documented, multiple deficiencies that have generated and continue to generate significant questions by the DNR.

*  As early as August, 2010 - - four years ago - - a coalition of local and state environmental and conservation organizations critiqued the application and issued a news release with this headline and opening:

Water Coalition Calls for Waukesha to Strengthen Insufficient Great Lakes Compact Application
Group Cites Lack of Scientific Comparison of Alternatives, Deficient Water Conservation Plan and Lack of Detailed Cost Estimates
WAUKESHA – Though Waukesha’s Common Council last week reaffirmed its support for the city’s application to divert water from Lake Michigan, the application fails to meet a number of standards of the Great Lakes Compact, as well as basic transparency expectations for city residents and stakeholders across the multi-state region
*  In December, 2010 the DNR finished a preliminary review of the application and sent Waukesha a complex set of 49 questions (many questions contained questions within questions, suggested hiring consultants, etc.) Waukesha had to answer. That meant a lot of work was still ahead, and it raised another question: why was the document forwarded with so many holes in it?

*  Leading environmental organizations in Wisconsin and elsewhere, on several occasions, raised issues with the application. Here is one such account.

*  Flash forward to 2013. Waukesha was still tweaking the application, and the more the city talked up its application and called attention to looming planning and construction deadlines, the more that objections to Waukesha's application began to arise in Canada, where two provinces which share water with the US began to play their crucial, advisory role.

*  And the questions continued to roll in.

*  Just a few weeks ago the DNR sent Waukesha yet another series of questions about the application, and asked the US EPA for assistance. As I wrote at the time:

Not only is the DNR looking for more information from Waukesha about the city's stalled diversion application for Great Lakes water - - the DNR is looking for guidance from the US EPA, too, this recent letter shows.
The involvement of multiple agencies and levels of government is just a hint of what is coming for Waukesha when the seven other Great Lakes states, two Canadian provinces, and perhaps tribal bodies in Canada have their own sets of questions and concerns.
*  And just a few days ago, Circle of Blue, an independent science and journalism collaborative and website in Michigan focused on water issues, and using information in documents obtained from the Waukesha Water Utility through the Wisconsin Open Records law, raised fresh questions about how Waukesha applied key water levels' data in its possession about available underground water supplies to justify an application diverting water from Lake Michigan. 

Pretty fundamental. 

Bottom line: the application is still not ready for the DNR to finish its environmental impact statement, schedule hearings and thus take ownership of the science and substance of the application and forward it on the other seven Great Lakes states for their study, critiques and questions.

Questions which Waukesha will have to answer. As did the City of New Berlin, when the DNR sent that city's application in 2007 for a far smaller diversion of Lake Michigan water - - drafted by a leading Wisconsin water and engineering consulting firm - - to the other states as a courtesy, since the New Berlin application was being reviewed under different, easier standards - - and still New Berlin had to handle substantial, tough questions from the other states before the Wisconsin DNR said the application was OK.

I wrote about it at the time:

...raising objections were the state of Illinois, and, in an advisory capacity, the Canadian province of Ontario, plus a long list of environmental and conservation organizations that raised significant questions of New Berlin and the DNR about the application's adequacy, accuracy, and completeness.
The State of New York's criticisms were brutal: I summarized them this way in a Capital Times column last year, quoting from the New York document provided through Open Records from the DNR:
"New York officials said the application was without key studies, complete data, adequate water supply descriptions, enough system and geological maps and "descriptions of the situation and feasible options."
"New York," I wrote, "opined that there was "no evidence that the applicant is aware of or familiar with the full range of applicable state and national regulations, laws, agreements or treaties," and cited other deficiencies or possible inaccuracies.
"Additionally, New York observed that "the statement of no cumulative impacts is unsupported by any data in the document and does not address potential cumulative impacts to Lake Michigan water levels, shoreline, other users, water-dependent natural resources, etc.'"
Does anyone believe that Waukesha will escape that kind of response, and the delays that will come, again, when answering questions may also lead to application re-writing, then more questions from another state, etc.? 

Well, no one should think that way, especially Waukesha, because the city has been warned to expect an initial application rejection - - told that publicly by a speaker the city invited to town to give its officials and the general public the lay of the regulatory and political land.

Important because Waukesha's application is the first under US-Canadian standards for a diversion of water that goes completely outside of the Great Lakes basin.

Waukesha brought water expert Peter Annin to town and had him address a Common Council meeting where he opined that regardless of how well the application had been drafted, the city could count on it being returned as incomplete by one of more of the other states. All eight states must approve Waukesha's application under the Great Lakes Compact of 2008 - - a water management document also approved by the US Congress, the Canadian national government and US President George W. Bush.

At the time - - in 2009 - - Annin told the Council to expert a "brutal" process.

And Annin subsequently has not minced words about the difficult path Waukesha has chosen to follow in search of a different water supply:
Peter Annin, the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” said Waukesha’s solution to this has been described as “Rube Goldberg like.”  Getting water under the compact is a complex process by design. Annin said Waukesha’s application is so complicated, it would take at least two trips up the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) to explain it.
And unlike state environmental standards and procedures which Walker has persuaded the Legislature to weaken, he cannot and dare not even appear to push the DNR towards finishing its work and sending the application to the other states as prematurely as Waukesha sent it to the DNR in the first place.

So, yes, Walker is right that the state will take its time, but only because the application is not ready after more than four years of drafting and tinkering.

Now, about Waukesha's eligibility for a share of the Hogwash prize.

The WPR story quotes Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility General Manager saying that while the city is under a court order to meet pending water supply requirements, further delays with the application were not going to be a big problem:

Waukesha water utility general manager Dan Duchniak said he's fine with the state’s pace, and that even if Wisconsin and other states weren’t to approve the plan until next year, Waukesha could still probably get a pipeline built by June 2018. That’s when it's supposed to meet a federal deadline for dealing with radium problems in local groundwater. 
“We would be in the process of getting the necessary people under contract so that when that final approval is received, we can hit the ground running,” said Duchniak.

Remember, it was Duchniak who told the Journal Sentinel's Don Behm in May, 2012 that the city's self-defined 18-month pre-approval planning buffer had been used up

This is Behm's lede and what we in the news business call the "nut graph.":

Waukesha - Time appears to have run out on Waukesha's landmark effort to obtain Lake Michigan water by a court-imposed deadline of June 2018 to provide residents with radium-safe drinking water. 
June of next year is a "drop-dead" date, Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak says, to have in place all of the pieces the city needs - approval from Wisconsin and seven other Great Lakes states, a water purchase deal from Milwaukee or another city and a host of pipeline construction contracts - in order to have lake water flowing to Waukesha by the summer of 2018. Five years are needed to build the new system, he said.
And we've heard this hurry up...take your, really, we have a deadline to meet, we're out of planning, we're not, before.

In August, 2012, after yet another another of these push-pull episodes, I wrote

Deja vu: 
I remember when Waukesha said it was moving forward with its application in May, 2009, but canceled a special Council meeting about it later that year.  
And changed consultants late in the game 
Then got its final, final application to the DNR in May, 2010 
Keep these self-inflicted delays in mind when Waukesha goes back to hurry-up mode and jams the DNR, and the Great Lakes Council of Governors (all eight must approve the application if and when the DNR gives a final OK, perhaps next year after environmental review, hearings, etc.), for quick action on the application because Waukesha agreed with the US EPA to meet a legal deadline and provide higher-quality water service by June, 2018. 
Then chose the difficult path of qualifying for a Lake Michigan diversion under the new Great Lakes Compact of 2008 with a precedent-setting application after ruling out all other alternatives. 
The Waukesha Patch in April, 2011 captured the history of the application's progress:
The application originally stalled in June, and the city hoped for DNR approval by the end of 2010 or early 2011. The delays on the application have cut into an 18-month buffer the city built in as it meets a June 2018 deadline to meet the EPA's mandate.
So - - is there a buffer period? Was there ever a buffer? Will there be a final, final, final application and straight stories about how much time the city needs to implement the application if it ever wins all the multiple legal, administrative and fiscal challenges ahead?
And is there a plan "B?" 


Anonymous said...

Best-article-ever on the subject.

Everyone else associated with this issue in Waukesha has abandoned ship except Captain Dan at the whelm.

I bet the $5000 application fee didn't get very far. Would Waukesha keep the application going if they had to pay the state as well as their consultants to keep the application going forward?

Republicans run on campaign platforms to lower taxes. This is one area of low hanging fruit and who could argue the hypocrisy?

That begs the question: How much taxpayer money has the state of Wisconsin spent on Waukesha's over 4 year old application and how much more money is it willing to keep spending? That's a worthy question in this election year. It's very highly unlikely this project will ever see the light of day and the DNR chief, Cathy Steep, needs to stop wasting DNR resources.

clogan98 said...

Thank you for this article. This whole issue is a complete and total mess. I live in Waukesha, and since I moved in 3 years ago, I have not found, nor has anyone been able to answer one simple question: Is my water safe for my 5 year old to drink? I am beginning to think it is time to move away, as I am worried I am hurting my daughter with the water. Any recommendations????

Anonymous said...

That's a good question Christopher. The city could have installed radium filters on all the deep aquifer wells and been in compliance with all EPA and DNR requirements.

Since we all now know that the utility misstated vital claims about the level of the deep aquifer in the 2010 to advance the application for a Lake Michigan diversion exception, what can we trust as accurate and truthful?

Boxer said...

Again, James, thanks for keeping everyone reminded of all the polluted water history that has flowed under the bridge on this issue. . . . and continuing to hold Waukesha and Walker accountable.

The bottom line is this: Waukesha has not made its case nor has it built a case because there isn't one to be made. Waukesha doesn't need the amount of LM water for which it has asked, it hasn't justified why the amount it needs can't be met by other, local and far less expensive sources, and most importantly, hasn't met the basic standards of the GL Compact, including that community seeking water outside its own basin must have a need that can be met ONLY by a LM diversion, not, as Waukesha continues to say, its PREFERRED alternative, nor as the rabid business community out there continues to whine: "We need that water to grow!"

A reasonable person just might conclude that Waukesha hasn't made its case because it cannot.

In the meantime, it continues to drag its citizens, ratepayers and genuinely concerned parents such as Christopher Logan through a morass of lawsuits, 3000-page applications, public misinformation meetings, open records and open meetings violations, waves of consultants, multiple DNR "reviews", Washington D.C. lobbyists, and gobs upon gobs of money paid to consultants and PR services to the tune of $13,000- $10,000 PER MONTH for the last seven years. What a colossal waste of time and taxpayer resources [i.e., money]. All to feed the egos of Duchniak, Warren, Nelson and now Reilly, and to fatten the pocketbooks of engineers, consultants, lawyers, and PR hucksters.

It is way past its (own) deadlines** because it's delayed, waited, held the application, only to come up with some repackaged version of the same old lousy s**t. Talk about your lipstick on a pig.

**of course this hasn't kept the prevaricators at the WWU and City of Waukesha from blaming everyone and anything else for the "delays".

Unknown said...

That was a really solid article on an issue that has been, at best, goofy.

@christopher logan,

Define "safe." Your question, while extremely fair, isn't as simple of a question as you'd think. I could speak for days on the topic, water treatment is what I do, but I guess I'd answer it another way:

Would I let my 11-month old niece drink Waukesha water completely unfiltered? No. Absolutely not.

BUT, that's not Waukesha-only and that's not because of radium--of note, a functional water softener removes radium so that's a non-factor for most people anyway.

Municipalities are governed by the National Primary Drinking Water Guidelines. It's basically "lacking immediate risk." So Toledo's toxic algae waste--not safe. There are 20-30 boil alerts in my feed reader every morning nationally, typically from cracked mains or systems losing pressure--not safe. These are immediate risks. I don't want my niece drinking toxic algae waste.

But what about chlorine? Disinfection byproducts? Pharmaceuticals? Petroleum derivatives? "Safe" is a loaded word. A lot of that is left to the choice of the consumer under the Secondary Drinking Water Guidelines under the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with Walker. I have lived in Milwaukee and Waukesha. Milwaukee is blessed to have fantastic water. Neither community should abuse it, both have very serious water issues that need attention as well as many other communities that take our abundance of fresh water for granted. Spend a day at Discovery World in Milwaukee to begin to understand. As a Waukesha resident, this water diversion shouldn't happen and Milwaukee needs to understand it isn't their lake to abuse either.

Greg Walz-Chojnacki said...

A wonderful summary. Thanks, Jim.