Waukesha Water Woes: Milwaukee Again Shows Regional Cooperation a One-Way Street

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Nobody will ever complain about the ground effects show at a city of Waukesha fireworks display ever again. Because of the drought, the city had to halt its Independence Day fireworks show early when the dry grass at the airport caught on fire. In a strange way, it should have reminded everyone of the debate in a different city that could affect Waukesha’s water future.

The city of Milwaukee Common Council voted 14-0-1 to try to restrict the sale of water to Waukesha to only serve the city and not the entire service area covered by the utility as set out by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). The council’s vote was despite the opinion of SEWRPC and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) saying the entire service area had to served. The vote by the Milwaukee Common Council means that Waukesha cannot negotiate with Milwaukee to purchase water.

The Waukesha Water Utility is under a compliance order to reduce the amount of radium in the drinking water. Despite protests from residents and elected officials that the radium standard is ridiculous, the Environmental Protection Agency prevailed in court and the city must be in full compliance by 2018. In the meantime, Waukesha residents can enjoy the feeling of the healthy glow.

After exhaustive research by the water utility, the city determined that the best solution to Waukesha’s long-term water problems was to find a source other than the deep aquifer on which the city relies now.

Shallow wells to the west presented too many obstacles. Neighboring communities would surely fight Waukesha’s expansion of the shallow well system as a threat to their own groundwater supplies. Already the town of Waukesha is suing to prevent the city from using a test well on the Lathers property for fear it will affect homeowner wells in the town.

Shallow wells to the west of the city present an environmental problem, too. Existing surface water features such as the Poplar Creek and the Vernon Marsh could be affected by the drawdown of water by the city.

So the city of Waukesha is looking east to Lake Michigan. Under the Great Lakes Compact that was approved by the states along the Great Lakes in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush the same year, municipalities in counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin could apply for permission to divert water from the lakes for use provided that approximately 100% of the water was returned. The diversion requires the approval of all of the Great Lakes states’ governors.

The provision for allowing the water beyond the basin was written with the full knowledge that Waukesha would be the first to apply. Waukesha is a test case for regional cooperation among the Great Lakes states and the Great Lakes Compact.

However, before the other governors can consider the application for the diversion, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has to grant the approval to the application. Part of the application process includes having an agreement with a community along Lake Michigan to sell the water to Waukesha. The city of Waukesha reached out to the cities of Racine, Oak Creek and Milwaukee.

It was estimated that Milwaukee would be the cheapest option because it was the shortest distance for a pipeline. There is also a quality preference, given the substantial upgrade to Milwaukee’s water system after the cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993.

The downside of trying to reach an agreement with Milwaukee is that Milwaukee water would have strings attached. In addition to the annual cost to Waukesha there would be an upfront charge and Milwaukee would require Waukesha to show plans regarding regional transit cooperation and affordable housing. For some reason Milwaukee is more obsessed with housing in other communities than housing in Milwaukee.

The requests for plans were not huge obstacles for Waukesha to overcome, but they raised red flags for many of Waukesha’s residents that Milwaukee could someday try to use water sales to dictate Waukesha’s future development planning. Mayor Jeff Scrima was elected in part because of these concerns even though they were completely unfounded. Water sales, like other utilities, are governed by the state Public Service Commission.

Nonetheless, Milwaukee delayed passing a resolution authorizing negotiations. Oak Creek and Racine did not delay in passing resolutions authorizing negotiations, and negotiations continued while Milwaukee debated whether it wanted to even sell water to Waukesha.

The vote on July 6th by the Milwaukee Common Council to restrict sales of water to the city of Waukesha but not the rest of the service area took Milwaukee out of contention as a possible water supplier. Given the lopsidedness of the vote, it’s unlikely the Common Council will reconsider their decision even though they have hurt Milwaukee’s water rate payers in the process.

The water utility in Milwaukee only operates at 25% of capacity. That means Milwaukee’s water consumers, whether in the city of Milwaukee or in one of Milwaukee’s current suburban customers, are paying for capacity that they don’t need. If Milwaukee was able to sell more water to more customers the costs for the current ratepayers would be spread out.

Making the decision even more unfathomable, by taking itself out of the water marketplace, Milwaukee has now encouraged competition for existing and future customers. It doesn’t take a PhD in geography to picture the communities that a pipeline from Waukesha to Oak Creek or a pipeline from Waukesha to Racine would pass through or near. Communities like New Berlin and West Allis, current wholesale customers of Milwaukee, could have a choice of water suppliers in the future.

If the vote by the members of the Milwaukee Common Council was out of some New Urbanist prejudice against possible “suburban sprawl,” the vote was self-defeating. By removing itself as a potential seller, Milwaukee will not even have the minimum influence over future Waukesha development they were seeking. Instead, Waukesha will be able to buy from Oak Creek or Racine with no planning requirements, and will certainly have no incentive in the future to cooperate with Milwaukee on regional issues.

Milwaukee will have even less influence than before as it has taught Waukesha and surrounding communities that Milwaukee isn’t interested in regional cooperation. Milwaukee still sees development as a zero-sum game, even though Milwaukee’s own study said that water-intensive industries would still choose Milwaukee.

But a growing, prosperous southeastern Wisconsin benefits all of the communities, the whole point behind the Milwaukee 7 regional development council. Milwaukee has lost sight of that and has become the obstacle to regional growth instead.

If the goal of some council members was to try to stop Waukesha’s application for Great Lakes water entirely, they have made a poor tactical decision. The removal of Milwaukee as a possible seller is also the removal of the biggest cause for opposition to the application within Waukesha. The fear that Milwaukee would use the process to dictate Waukesha development is now gone. Instead, Waukesha has two willing negotiating partners, neither of which have the preconditions for water sales that Milwaukee had.

Finally, Milwaukee residents should seriously question the decision by their Common Council when the pipeline will be built elsewhere. Instead of running a pipeline through the city of Milwaukee, with the jobs that would result, now the pipeline will go from one suburban community to another. More jobs in the suburbs and a missed opportunity for the unemployed in Milwaukee.

So instead of seeing all of the benefits from selling water to Waukesha, Milwaukee’s refusal to be a partner in regional cooperation and development has caused it to miss out on real opportunities for its residents and has probably hurt the city in the long term.