Waukesha: The Next Test of the Great Lakes Compact


The comment period for the City of Waukesha’s application for a diversion of Great Lakes water closes Saturday, August 13.  Waukesha’s application is the first real test of the Great Lakes Compact’s provisions governing new and increased withdrawals.  As such, it’s a precedent-setting application, potentially establishing the bar for State review and public input, as well as how the Compact’s criteria will be applied.

Waukesha is a suburban community to the west of Milwaukee, where past levels and types of growth strained local groundwater resources.  Increasing water demands led to declining water tables, and deteriorating water quality.  Waukesha reported numerous violations of the drinking water standards for radionuclides, and has been directed by the State of Wisconsin to take remedial measures.  Waukesha now proposes to replace all its local sources of water with Lake Michigan water.

There is no doubt Waukesha faces a serious problem.  What’s very much in doubt is whether a diversion of Lake Michigan water is the most cost-effective and environmentally responsible solution. 

Because Waukesha lies outside the Great Lakes Basin, the City’s proposal to divert water from Lake Michigan requires approval under the standards and process established by the Great Lakes Compact, which sets a justifiably high bar for those applications.  An applicant must prove that all other water supply options (including conservation and efficiency) have been exhausted, that any water withdrawn will be returned to the Basin (with some exceptions), and that the diversion will not affect the overall health of the Great Lakes and its tributaries.

Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that Waukesha has met these high standards, despite repeated back and forth with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). 

Let’s look at one example: water conservation and efficiency.

This is an area where Waukesha has made some promising progress. In 2006, the City approved a comprehensive water conservation plan and then proceeded to implement many of its recommendations.  It introduced an outdoor sprinkling ordinance in 2006 that restricts summer usage; the City estimates a 15 percent decrease in summer watering from 2005 to 2008.  It introduced conservation water rates for residential customers in 2007, becoming the first city in the state of Wisconsin to charge customers more per gallon as water use increases, a proven conservation strategy.  It’s also implemented a program to identify and repair water leaks, in addition to some other conservation and efficiency measures.

Despite the City’s own documentation of its success with water conservation and efficiency, it asserts that “water conservation measures alone cannot offset the projected need for an alternative water supply.”  But, how does the City know that?  After all, it did not provide the requested analysis of how the conservation and efficiency measures it’s already implemented have affected water use.  The City has also not implemented all of the conservation measures recommended in its 2006 plan.

And, whether due to conservation, price or another reason, the City continues to see water use decline.  As recently reported by the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, Waukesha’s water use “declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2010 to an average daily demand of 6.69 million gallons a day… Actual demand was 1.21 million gallons a day less than the 2010 estimate included in the city's request for Great Lakes water.”  As Waukesha’s application shows, total water use by city customers has dropped 31 percent from 1988 to 2008, despite an 18 percent population increase.

Here are some specific questions about Waukesha’s water conservation and efficiency plan:

  • Given the success the City touts with its residential water conservation rate structure, why doesn’t it apply that same structure to commercial and industrial users (who still receive declining block rates, meaning that they pay LESS as they use more water)?
  • How can the City claim it has exhausted water conservation and efficiency measures when its toilet rebate program has only replaced 65 toilets since 2008, falling far short of the program’s goal of saving 500,000 gallons per year (the 65 toilets are saving an average of 15,000 annually)?  Compare that to the adjacent town of New Berlin, which incented 77 toilet replacements in 2010 alone, with about 40% of Waukesha’s population.
  • How has the City factored in the conservation measures it’s already undertaken into its forecasts for future demand? 

And, those are just some of the questions regarding one part of the application – the water conservation and efficiency component.

The application raises other questions, including:

  • Who’s supplying the water?  In its application, Waukesha states that it is discussing the purchase of potable water from Lake Michigan with the Cities of Milwaukee, Oak Creek, and Racine.   Without knowing who the supplier is, how can the City of Waukesha accurately estimate the needed infrastructure cost, the environmental impact and, most importantly, the end cost to its rate payers?
  • Who gets the water?  The City of Waukesha includes adjacent towns in the application, Genesee and the Town of Waukesha, low-density areas where residents are supplied water by private wells. Neither town has fully signed onto the application (the Town of Genesee agreed to be included in the water service planning area, with the explicit assurance that their doing so implies no financial commitment; the Town of Waukesha has taken no action).  How can the City of Waukesha accurately estimate how much water is actually needed through the diversion if they don’t know how many water users will be included? 
  • How will the water be returned to Lake Michigan?  The City identifies three possible routes to return water to Lake Michigan: using natural systems, Underwood Creek or the Root River, or by building a pipeline directly to the lake.  Residents near Underwood Creek (Waukesha’s preferred alternative) expressed concerns about flooding at one of the public hearings.  Racine, Wisconsin officials are concerned about potential impacts to the Root River, which could see base flows increase three times their normal levels – who knows how high flows could be under storm conditions?
  • Who’s going to pay?  The City estimates that its residents could see their water rates nearly double under the best case scenario, i.e. a windfall in federal and state funds.  The federally-supported State Revolving Funds for Drinking Water and Clean Water, have been declining for years and face almost a $1 billion in cuts in the FY 2012 federal budget.  What’s more, Wisconsin already faces an estimated $11 billion in unmet infrastructure needs. A hoped-for federal grant of $75 million for the Waukesha application seems highly unlikely.  Without a significant injection of state or federal funds, Waukesha residents could see their rates increase more than four-fold to pay for the diversion. 

The pressure is on the City of Waukesha and the State of Wisconsin to make sure these questions – and more -- are fully answered. 

Remember that high bar I mentioned at the beginning?  If Wisconsin deems the Waukesha application ready to move to the next level of review (that decision is expected sometime in November, 2011, after more state analysis and an environmental impact statement), it goes to the 7 Great Lakes governors – each of whom can be expected to weigh in on a questionable proposal as strongly as Governor Cuomo (New York) and Governor Snyder (Michigan) did when Ohio Governor Kasich wavered on vetoing a bill that undermined the Compact.

That’s because protection of the Great Lakes is a rallying point for the region – and a nonpartisan one at that.  As in Ohio, the other governors are unlikely to pull their punches if Wisconsin approves an application with obvious flaws.  The state and the City of Waukesha have a long way to go before it’s even close