Waukesha Water Application Hitting Predicted Wall

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How else to react to the heart of Don Behm's comprehensive piece in this newspaper Sunday about approval and construction complexities the City of Waukesha opted to face, but now finds seriously daunting, in its application for a diversion of water from Lake Michigan?

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.

You can break down those approvals, preliminary steps and potential roadblocks even further and wonder why Waukesha chose to dive into these deep and murky procedural waters in the never-tested Great Lakes Compact of 2008.

We'll get to the warnings sent Waukesha's way in a few paragraphs, but consider that:

*  There will be hearings galore in multiple settings on various pieces of the review process in Wisconsin - - a process in no way near completion. Each hearing can produce opinion or data that will send regulators back to the drawing board.

*  The City of Waukesha does not even yet know if the Town of Waukesha, with acreage included in the application without the Town's permission - - but arguably inclusions brings with it responsibility for conservation planning, and other expenses and responsibilities - -  will choose to be in or out.

*  There are innumerable uncertainties about the application's reception in the seven other Great Lakes states, and perhaps in two Canadian provinces which have advisory roles, as do First Nation tribes there.

Even after after Wisconsin sends the application to the other states - - and who knows if and when that takes place - - any of the states could send it back for fresh answers or a time-consuming do-over. An unambiguous veto by any of the states (not a step available in the provinces) weould deny Waukesha the unanimous approvals by all eight GreatLakes states the Compact mandates for such diversions.

The Great Lakes water expert Peter Annin, brought some time ago to a public meeting in Waukesha by the city, told an assemblage of citizens and officials in the Common Council chambers that they should expect as a given, at least one state to reject on the application on its first reading.

*  If the City of Milwaukee were to consider a negotiated water sale agreement - - and, remember, Milwaukee has a long list of regional policy requirements openly objected to by many in Waukesha on transit, housing and other issues that Milwaukee wants satisfied before a deal could be done - -  committee hearings would precede any final Common Council vote.

That is potentially a long process on its own, and without a clear resolution. Years of regional disagreements make a mutually-acceptable water sale agreement very iffy.

*  And not only would that deal need approval by the Waukesha Common Council, along issues need an OK there, too, from bonding to spending, and so on.

At any step in the process, litigation could be filed on behalf of any of a wide variety of plaintiffs: disgruntled Waukesha water ratepayers (already there is objection to rate increases Waukesha is seeking before the Public Service Commission to help finance future utility costs); or from Wauwatosa residents who do not want Waukesha's new return flow wastewater dumped into Underwood Creek, as proposed; or from a property owner objecting to an intake or return flow pipe route or easement; or from concerned conservationists; or by out-of-staters from New York to Ohio to Michigan to Minnesota claiming a Compact violation, or a collision with local or state laws, and so forth.

Getting this precedent-setting application approved will require lining up hundreds of regulators, decision-makers and staffers, and untold numbers of citizens across eight states and two provinces in two countries to agree, under a new set of rules and laws, and do something never attempted under the 2008 Compact:

Pipe water out of the Great Lakes basin and agree on how and where to return it in an era where water is routinely called "the next oil."

Organizations with expertise and independence have raised, more than once, many of the issues facing Waukesha, but their suggestions about approaches and alternatives have been discounted or dismissed.

At my other blog, I've been writing for years about the contradictions and self-inflicted obstacles in Waukesha's application - -  a Lake Michigan-or-bust mentality- -  that now seem so complicated and overly-engineered on paper in a Rube Goldberg sort of way that failure is possible.

You can get into that discussion, here, and a record of questions raised about the wisdom of the Waukesha application going back back to 2010, the year that Waukesha finished writing the application:
So it's not a quick or simple undertaking - - and Waukesha has agreed in writing to meet a June, 2018 legal deadline for the provision of water to its customers that complies with Federal quality standards...

Among the many answered questions...

Does Waukesha have additional and viable alternatives to a Lake Michigan diversion that will meet the Federal water quality standards?

Can Waukesha clear the multitude of legal, political and environmental hurdles the application faces - - in Waukesha, in Southeastern Wisconsin, at the DNR and across the Great Lakes both in the US and Canada - - by the June, 2018 deadline?...
Complicated? You bet.

Was the Lake Michigan option the right choice by Waukesha?

Cross-posed at Purple Wisconsin, here:

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