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DNR Halts Waukesha’s Water Request

Rule out all other alternatives, DNR Secretary Frank says

Jun. 16, 2010
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“The ball’s in Waukesha’s court,” said Eric Ebersberger, water use section chief for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), of the agency’s decision to stop reviewing Waukesha’s application for Lake Michigan water.

Specifically, DNR Secretary Matt Frank wrote in a June 8 letter to Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima that the city’s application for Lake Michigan water—the first application under the Great Lakes Water Compact for a “straddling community” (a community that is located within both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins)—was deficient in three major ways:

  • Waukesha failed to prove that Great Lakes water was the only viable option for a sustainable water supply. Frank cited ongoing discussions within Waukesha about alternatives to Great Lakes water. “The department cannot move forward on reviewing the application and the city must confirm that Great Lakes water is in fact the only long-term sustainable water option,” he wrote.

  • Waukesha identified three sources of Lake Michigan water—Milwaukee, Racine and Oak Creek—but did not provide a return flow option for each withdrawal source. The compact requires that the return flow be as close as possible to the withdrawal source.

  • Waukesha failed to supply a cost analysis for all three Lake Michigan water sources.

If Waukesha provides more complete data and analysis and sends the $5,000 application fee, Ebersberger said the DNR would take another look at the request. If or when the DNR signs off on Waukesha’s request, it will pass on the application to the other Great Lakes compact partners for review and approval.

‘A Back-and-Forth Process’

Dan Duchniak, manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, said that the city has all of the information that has been requested and expects to respond to the DNR within the next few weeks. Duchniak said the DNR’s request for more data and analysis was a routine part of the application process.

“This is to be expected,” Duchniak said. “It is a back-and-forth process.”

But environmental groups cheered the DNR’s decision, saying that by asking for a thorough analysis the agency was setting a high standard for Great Lakes water diversions.

For more than a year, a coalition of environmental groups has been pushing both Waukesha and the DNR for a transparent, thorough analysis of Waukesha’s water supplies and future needs before signing off on the application. Coalition members include Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Midwest Environmental Advocates, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, Waukesha County Environmental Action League and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

“This application will be a test case for the Great Lakes compact,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, counsel for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It gives Wisconsin the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat on how we want to proceed with the evaluation.”

Disagreement Within Waukesha

Frank’s letter cited the reported disagreement between the powers-that-be in Waukesha as one of the reasons why the DNR has returned the application for more study.

On one side, the Waukesha Water Utility and the Waukesha Common Council, which approved the application, support the request for a Lake Michigan diversion.

On the other side, Mayor Jeff Scrima, elected in April, has questioned whether Waukesha truly needs Lake Michigan water or whether local sources within the Mississippi River Basin can be tapped and treated instead. Scrima made his reservations about the water request a centerpiece of his spring campaign for mayor, saying that the city hadn’t fully explored all of its options. As recently as mid-May, he had invited experts to testify about new technologies that potentially could remove radium from the city’s water supply. The city currently relies on pumping from its deep aquifer, which draws water that has unsafe levels of radium and must be cleaned up by 2018. Groundwater and shallow aquifer water aren’t adequate for the city’s needs, Great Lakes water advocates argue.

The DNR’s Ebersberger said the disagreement indicated that Waukesha hadn’t made a complete analysis of its water options.

“One of the first steps is that you have to show that you have no reasonable supply alternative in the basin,” Ebersberger said. “But to the extent that they are actively discussing and pursuing water supply alternatives, I think it indicates that they’re not through with that analysis.”

Ebersberger said consensus among Waukesha decision-makers was critical to the application’s success.

“One of the things we want to make sure of is that the decision-makers and the governing structure in the city support the application,” Ebersberger said. “We don’t want to review the application only to find out that the city doesn’t support its own application. We want to make sure that when Waukesha submits its application that it has the official support of the city.”

A Test Case for the Compact

Habush Sinykin said that Waukesha hadn’t made its case that it required Great Lakes water and suggested that a multiphase option be given greater consideration. Instead of complete reliance on one water source, a combination of sources could be used—deep aquifer water that’s been treated for radium, groundwater and strengthened conservation efforts. She said new sources within the Mississippi River Basin—for example, from nearby quarries or the riverbanks of the Fox River—could be tapped as well.

“This is one of the reasons why the DNR recommended further inquiry,” Habush Sinykin said.

She also questioned Waukesha’s cost estimates for tapping into Lake Michigan water, which would require extensive infrastructure, a purchase agreement with a water supplier, and ongoing energy use.

“It’s hard to get any sense of what the costs are,” Habush Sinykin said. “You’re relying on what [the consultants] have found. But we don’t have an independent engineer or economist giving us some other perspective on it.”

In its recent application, Waukesha wrote that it would cost an estimated $164 million to build the infrastructure to treat its wastewater and return it via Underwood Creek. But it didn’t satisfy the DNR’s standard for providing a thorough financial analysis about the cost of purchasing water from each municipality as well as the cost of returning it to the Lake Michigan basin.

Duchniak said that the application did not include detailed financial information because city attorneys said that would put the city at a disadvantage in its negotiations with the three municipalities that could provide Lake Michigan water.

“We’re working with the DNR on providing them with that information, but for it to potentially remain confidential,” Duchniak said.


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