2013: Great Lakes eye on Wisconsin


Gary Wilson

Commentary

Can the cheese state lead on water?

Michigan will always be the center of attention when it comes to Great Lakes issues. Geography demands it.

But other states garner focus too.

Ohio and Lake Erie have been in the spotlight for the last few years as the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes is experiencing another of its recurring near-death cycles. Intense algae blooms are the current threat. Lake Erie’s problems will persist and it should receive all possible resources.

But now the spotlight shifts to Wisconsin.  Here’s why:

  • The city of Waukesha is located just outside the Great Lakes basin and it wants to tap Lake Michigan for millions of gallons of water daily.  This is the first test of the landmark Great Lakes Compact that requires the request to gain the approval of the other Great Lakes states. The region needs to get Waukesha’s application right because it’s likely to be precedent setting. A critical and tough review means that the compact may yet have teeth.
  • Greater Milwaukee is positioning itself as a world water hub for technology, research and economic growth. The effort is led by The Water Council, a business community initiative supported by academic institutions. “Milwaukee itself exemplifies the hope that water may not only support growth, but catalyze it” the Economist has reported.  But is a business driven model for resource management in the region’s best interests? Especially when the resource is water?
  • Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is a key Great Lakes player. He chairs the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a group of U.S. and Canadian mayors who “are leading a movement that will sustain our freshwater resources long into the future,” according to the group’s website. Will Barrett impact Great Lakes policy beyond his influence on the region’s mayors?
  • The cheese state has more than 200 miles of Lake Michigan shore. That’s the Lake Michigan that is experiencing near record low water levels.

Toss in an aggressive mining proposal that could threaten Lake Superior and that’s a lot on Wisconsin’s Great Lakes plate.

Needed: True leaders

I’m always looking for leaders when it comes to Great Lakes issues – true leaders, not the issue a press release and disappear types.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says he wants to lead the governors and he has that opportunity. But he’s a businessman at heart and I’m not sure leading on conservation is in his DNA.

Could Wisconsin lead on Great Lakes issues?

The old Wisconsin could – the Wisconsin of Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. But those days are in Wisconsin’s rear-view mirror.  Gov. Scott Walker has a primarily economic agenda and he has been described by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters as “arguably the most anti-conservation governor in Wisconsin history.”

A similarly minded state legislature is no help.

Where does that leave Wisconsin and its relationship to the Great Lakes in 2013?

The state has an opportunity to lead by example but it will require a willingness to think critically and for the long term, not until the next election. Here’s how:

  • Wisconsin can enhance the chances of Waukesha getting Lake Michigan water by telling it to drop its plan for an increased service area. That’s only in the request to promote economic growth and is probably a deal killer anyway.
  • The Water Council can better serve the region by scaling back on self-promoting press releases and similar social media messages. Water isn’t a marketing tool to be used for economic growth. It’s a necessary-for-life natural resource held in trust for the public by the state. A wise Water Council would look at Lake Michigan’s low levels and start talking about conservation not consumption. That’s the key to business prosperity.
  • Mayor Barrett can use the bully pulpit of his mayoral leadership position to demonstrate that urban areas can be good water stewards. If he does, not only do Milwaukee’s residents and businesses benefit, so does the state of Wisconsin.

I’m not an optimist by nature so I doubt that my recommendations will gain traction, except perhaps Barrett leading by example.

The broad Great Lakes community – conservation groups, government agencies and regional commissions –are scheduled to meet in Milwaukee this fall for their annual conference. It will be a good time to take stock.

Which Wisconsin will be on display?

The one that is focused on the economy at all costs and sees water as one more option in the marketing toolbox?

Or a Wisconsin that recognizes that its water abundance is a one-time gift to be used wisely and conserved for generations to come?

I’m hoping for the latter but the evidence to date isn’t encouraging.

7 thoughts on “2013: Great Lakes eye on Wisconsin

  1. Wisconsin’s law that adopted and implemented the Compact requires water utilities to be able to serve their entire service area. It also requires water service areas to be consistent with existing wastewater service areas (which complies with return flow requirements of the Compact). It is illegal for a Wisconsin service area to be restricted by municipal boundaries, as this opinion piece recommends.

    The claim that the service area is intended to promote growth is untrue. The area outside of the city is largely residential and largely developed (but on wells). Only 0.2% of that area is undeveloped commercial land and only 0.5% is undeveloped industrial land.

    The service area was drawn by regional planners to meet the need of existing residents and to comply with state planning laws. It is not about growth.

  2. Anonymous,

    Your technical argument has been published and known and the issue of Waukesha requesting water for growth remains open and subject to debate by elected officials and water policy experts.

    This Journal Sentinel article by Don Behm provides a perspective from Milwaukee Mayor Barrett on the growth issue.

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/dnr-tells-barrett-water-talks-must-encompass-broader-waukesha-service-area-kc6bhks-164814126.html

    In the following excerpt from an earlier Echo piece I noted that Marc Smith of the National Wildlife Federation expresses his concern.

    From the commentary. Link here. http://greatlakesecho.org/2012/10/26/stop-blaming-the-army-corps-of-engineers-and-are-enviro-groups-up-to-the-waukesha-test/

    I asked Smith about a controversial aspect of Waukesha’s request – the fact that it is requesting more water than it needs and it includes an expanded service area.

    Smith said that’s a potential red flag. In its normal course of business Waukesha could work with the state and expand its service area. However its request for Great Lakes water comes under the provisions of the Compact and “is not business as usual.”

    “If Waukesha’s diversion application includes an expanded service area, that area must have a demonstrated need otherwise the request raises questions about its compliance with the Compact.”

    ———————

    I also consulted with a Great Lakes water lawyer who is familiar with the Compact. The opinion was that it is unclear at the law whether expanding the service area is compliant with the Compact. But the attorney was unequivocal in saying that requesting water for an expanded service will make it harder to secure approval from the other Great Lakes states.

    The Compact requires a need.

    The issue of Waukesha requesting water for growth in addition to need will continue to be debated in SE Wisconsin.

    Based on my ongoing research and the expert opinions I reference here, I believe Waukesha’s request contains a growth component and it would be better served if it dropped it from its request.

    The seven other Great Lakes states will ultimately decide.

    Gary Wilson

  3. Wisconsin’s law that adopted and implemented the Compact requires water utilities to be able to serve their entire service area. It also requires the water service areas to be consistent with the existing wastewater service area (which is also consistent with the Compact requirements on return flow). It is illegal for a Wisconsin service area to be restricted by municipal boundaries, as this opinion piece recommends.

    The claim that the service area is intended to promote growth is untrue. The area outside of the city is largely residential and largely developed (but on wells). Only 0.2% of that area is undeveloped commercial land and only 0.5% is undeveloped industrial land.

    The service area was drawn by regional planners to meet the need of existing residents and to comply with state planning laws. It is not about growth.

  4. Gary, you should also mention the billions of gallons of untreated sewage Milwaukee Metro Sewage District dumps into Lake Michigan whenever it can’t handle a big event, and that the Chicago diversion takes two billion gallons of our fresh water every day. While I’m not in favor of any loss of water at this point, I’d give Waukesha millions a day if we could stop the billions going out to the Mississippi.

  5. We probably agree more than not Sandy but my concern is that in Milwaukee corporate interests are leading the “water as an economic driver” initiative. At least on a de facto basis.

    I don’t believe corporations should have control or undue influence over water.

    Gary Wilson

  6. Pingback: Writer Says Wisconsin Is At Center Of Great Lakes Water Issues | The Penn Ave Post

  7. I believe that promoting water as an economic driver in the Great Lakes is our only way to save water quality, habitat etc.
    The economic assessments of the value of the lakes to jobs, property values, industry, transportation is very poor – one segment gets a study like shipping leaving the other values unrepresented.
    In this time of money drives all…
    Realizing the value of water and then taking steps like conservation of water is possible. I think without the economics of water udnerstood and promoted, the Great Lakes are doomed.

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