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Waukesha-Milwaukee Water Talks Break Down

Will Lake Michigan water come from Racine or Oak Creek?

Jun. 27, 2012
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Last Wednesday, a Milwaukee Common Council committee voted to pursue negotiations to sell Lake Michigan water to the city of Waukesha, a first-of-its-kind sale under the eight-state Great Lakes Water Resources Compact.

On Monday, Waukesha Water Utility administrator Dan Duchniak told the Shepherd that Milwaukee's offer is "not workable" because it excludes neighboring communities that—though they are largely not hooked up to Waukesha's municipal water system right now—could be connected to the system in the future.

Duchniak said Waukesha would continue negotiating with Racine and Oak Creek for its future water supply, but that Milwaukee is no longer an option.

"Unfortunately, Milwaukee has walked away from $3 million for its taxpayers," Duchniak said of the loss of potential revenue.

But Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, chair of the Public Works Committee, said that Waukesha's request for Milwaukee water wasn't about water at all. Rather, it's about the city of Waukesha using Lake Michigan water to expand its boundaries and develop rural communities at the expense of Milwaukee.

"This is, in my view, a very cleverly orchestrated plan to facilitate the future expansion of the city of Waukesha to roughly double its current size by putting in place the availability of water and use that availability as a marketing tool to build out these township areas," Bauman said.

Is There a Need?

At the heart of the conflict is Milwaukee's resistance to supplying water to communities surrounding the city of Waukesha—the town of Waukesha, the town of Genesee, the town of Delafield and the city of Pewaukee.

Under the Great Lakes compact, a community must show that it lacks a safe supply of water within its continental basin. When that has been established, it is able to approach a water supplier—Milwaukee, Racine or Oak Creek, in this case—outside of its basin.

One potential scenario is for Waukesha to receive water from Milwaukee, which would be pumped through a pipe along Howard Avenue, then north through the Root River Parkway to 124th Street, then west through Waukesha. Water could be returned through Underwood Creek or Oak Creek to Lake Michigan.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently reviewing Waukesha's application for Lake Michigan water and, ultimately, the request must get the approval of all eight Great Lakes governors.

The city of Waukesha is under a court order to find a clean source of water by June 30, 2018, since its water is contaminated by radium.

But those other communities are not under that court order, and Milwaukee officials said that they doubted that these smaller towns—which by and large have septic systems and do not draw their water from the city of Waukesha or the radium-tainted deep aquifer—truly need Lake Michigan water.

In his testimony in last week's meeting, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said that he supported talks with the city of Waukesha only, saying that other than an area within the town of Genesee, "there is no—to my knowledge—record that shows the remaining communities have an immediate issue with a safe, potable water supply."

But Duchniak argues that the smaller towns must be included because they are part of the city's water supply plan—more or less the city's planned sewage service area. The city of Waukesha included those small towns in its service area map, which was approved by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) in 2008.

State law requires Waukesha to use that map when requesting Lake Michigan water. Individual municipalities must be taken as a package and cannot be removed from the area, Duchniak said.

"It's not a negotiable item," Duchniak said.

City v. Town

Although state statute requires all of the municipalities in the service area to approve of the plan to request Lake Michigan water, the city of Waukesha hasn't gotten the agreement of all of the communities just yet.

The town of Waukesha is the lone holdout.

The town's board chair, Angie Van Scyoc, said she could find no record of anyone informing the town that it was included in that service area map. (Duchniak disagreed with her statement, saying that letters were sent in 2008.)

Nor, she said, would the town have water supply problems in the foreseeable future. It doesn't have radium problems, either.

She said only a few dozen homes are currently supplied with city of Waukesha water, since most of the homes have their own septic systems. Hooking up to municipal water would require significant infrastructure development, an investment she said town representatives were not willing to make with the information they currently have.

The town of Waukesha hasn't agreed to be part of the city's request for Lake Michigan water from any source, although Van Scyoc said the town did propose being observers to the negotiations with Racine and Oak Creek—a proposal that was declined.

"We'd really like to see the supplier nailed down so that we understand where it's coming from, where it's going to and what the costs are, so that we can quantify what the impact is going to be," Van Scyoc said.

'We're Willing to Talk to Them'

Eric Ebersberger, the DNR's water use section chief, said he wasn't willing to say whether the DNR could remove a resistant community from the application's service area.

"If the town did not approve [of being included], then the DNR would have to make a decision about the implications of that, whether they would in fact be out of the service area," Ebersberger said. "I'm not prepared to discuss what that decision might be."

Bauman, an attorney, isn't impressed with the city of Waukesha's insistence that the other communities be included in the request, calling the SEWRPC map and state law implementing the Great Lakes compact "bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo" that Waukesha was hiding behind so that it could develop beyond its current boundaries.

"I absolutely reject the notion that any of this is set in stone other than the boundaries of the city of Waukesha," Bauman said. "We're willing to talk to them."

He warned that Milwaukee wouldn't shy away from a battle over Waukesha potentially returning their Lake Michigan water through Underwood Creek and the Menomonee River. In fact, Baumann said, the city would have better legal standing to object to the proposed flow if it wasn't Waukesha's water supplier.

"If we're not part of the plan, we are perfectly within our right to object to their return flow plan," Bauman said. "And even pursue litigation if necessary."

Waukesha's Duchniak scoffed at assertions that the city would use the water plan to increase development in the area, stating that only 15% of the service area outside of the current city limits was available for development, the vast majority of which is residential and not zoned for commercial or industrial use.

"It's just insignificant," Duchniak said.


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