Waukesha Water Wars Regional Cooperation a 2-way Street

It’s the $116,000,000 question.  Where will the city of Waukesha get water from, and what does it mean for regional cooperation?

Waukesha was once known for the healing properties of its spring water, earning the city the nickname, “Spring City.” Now the city is under a compliance order from the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of radium in the drinking water. Apparently the healthy glow of Waukesha residents owes more to Madame Curie than to the extra minerals.

The radium is the result of using well water from a deep aquifer that is rapidly becoming depleted. A layer of shale prevents surface water from replenishing the aquifer. As the aquifer diminishes, the radium count increases.

Waukesha has two choices, and neither one of them are fun.

The first choice is to acquire land to the west and dig more shallow wells. This is costly, $145-$176 million, and will again directly affect water surface features in the surrounding area.  Communities to the west will surely protest the loss of water pressure in residential wells and the damage to lakes and rivers. Already environmentalists and residents of the Town of Waukesha are unhappy over plans to annex land near the Vernon Marsh area for development and shallow wells.

The other choice is to get water from Lake Michigan. Under the Great Lakes Compact, communities in counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin can petition to be granted permission to tap Lake Michigan water. This is not an easy process.

Under the Great Lakes Compact, each state in the Great Lakes region has the power to veto any applications for water. The community getting the water has to arrange for the water’s complete return, with allowance for use. Finally, the community has to find a seller.

In Waukesha’s case, they are considering water from three communities: Milwaukee, Oak Creek, and Racine. Milwaukee is the “cheapest” option so far. To build as pipeline to get the water from Milwaukee and to accomplish the return flow is estimated at $116 million, much less expensive than developing wells to the west.

Nothing in life is ever that easy. During Milwaukee’s debate over whether to sell water to western New Berlin, Milwaukee aldermen demanded more than the price of water. They wanted New Berlin’s cooperation with light rail and other regional transportation projects. They wanted New Berlin to agree to allow more affordable housing. In the end those demands were dropped, and New Berlin agreed to pay $650,000 a year and a one-time fee of $1.5 million.

Now it’s Waukesha’s turn, and the issue has already injected itself into the race for mayor. Waukesha’s current mayor Larry Nelson likes regional cooperation of the Milwaukee kind. He supports regional cooperation on transportation and is open to joining a Regional Transit Authority.

His opponents are of varying degrees of opposition. Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Darryl Enriquez supports the idea of getting water from Lake Michigan, but only if there are no policy strings attached. He wants to be open to negotiating with Oak Creek and Racine to keep Milwaukee from dictating terms. Former police officer Bill Beglinger and real estate developer Jeff Scrima go even further, suggesting Waukesha should store water in quarries and develop wells to the west rather than take the risk of Milwaukee dictating the city’s housing and transportation policies, even though such water plans were dismissed as unworkable and too expensive.

On the other side, there’s pressure in Milwaukee to not sell any water to Waukesha. Local environmental writer Jim Rowen is typical of the opposition to selling Waukesha water. Rowen’s objection is to any expansion of Waukesha, believing growth in Southeastern Wisconsin is a zero-sum game. If Waukesha grows, it must be to the detriment of Milwaukee. Regional cooperation gives way to regional competition, and Rowen wants to play cut-throat with Waukesha’s water needs.

However, the growth to which Rowen objects is the natural, modest growth Waukesha has already been seeing projected over the time of the negotiations to get Waukesha approval for water, build the pipeline and arrange for the return flow of the water to Lake Michigan.

Growth of part of the region should be to the benefit of all. If Waukesha grows, that’s more people working in Milwaukee and buying goods and services there. Milwaukee would benefit and, if they adopt the right policies, grow, too.

But if Milwaukee listens to anti-Waukesha voices like Rowen, Milwaukee will miss an opportunity to generate revenue from the water sale and demonstrate to its neighbors it really believes in regional cooperation.

By James Wigderson
A Special Perspective for the MacIver Institute