Limits on selling water may affect
Laws on diverting Great Lakes water may pose a greater
By Corissa Jansen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee's stricter criteria for the sale of Lake Michigan
water may have little impact on suburbs seeking to meet
their future water needs as aquifers serving outlying
areas are depleted, regional planners say.
By the Numbers
The amount of money Milwaukee brings in selling water
to more than a dozen suburbs that previously relied on
The new standards approved by the Milwaukee Common Council
last month are designed to ensure that suburbs don't grow
at the expense of the city.
The standards include such factors as whether the community
has adopted "Smart Growth" legislation and affordable
housing and transportation links with "disadvantaged
people living in urban Milwaukee County."
More important, says the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional
Planning Commission's chief environmental engineer, will
be laws governing the diversion of water from the Great
Only a handful of Milwaukee area communities are on the
east side of the subcontinental divide, which would make
them eligible under an international treaty to have Lake
Michigan water running through their taps, said the commission
official, Bob Biebel.
Those communities include New Berlin, Brookfield and Elm
Grove in Waukesha County, and Germantown in Washington
County. And of those, New Berlin is the only community
currently negotiating to buy Lake Michigan water.
Milwaukee Water Works Assistant Superintendent Dale Mejaki
said there have been no other requests for water in the
past year. In 2001, Elm Grove and Brookfield expressed
interest in exploring the possibility of obtaining Milwaukee
water in the future, but they did not pursue the matter.
Many other suburbs that need new sources of water lie
west of the subcontinental divide that separates the Great
Lakes basin from the Mississippi River basin. And diversions
of Lake Michigan water into those areas would need unanimous
approval from the Council of Great Lakes Governors, which
includes associates from Quebec and Ontario in Canada.
"So whatever (Milwaukee's) new standards are, the
impact is going to be modestly limited," Biebel said.
He added that the only community that's likely to be
affected by the changes is New Berlin, and New Berlin
officials say they're optimistic that a deal can be reached,
even under the new standards.
"The bottom line is, we've given them the information
they apparently still need in order to move forward on
this discussion. . . . And I can understand why they want
it," said New Berlin Mayor Ted Wysocki, whose city's
water supply is expected to fall short by 3 million gallons
per day by 2020.
Wysocki notes that bus routes bring workers from outside
of New Berlin into his city, primarily its industrial
parks, and that New Berlin ranks second-highest in Waukesha
County in the number of units of affordable housing.
Suburban deals questioned
Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy proposed the changes in
water sale criteria, saying he doesn't want his city to
view Lake Michigan water strictly as a commodity.
"All I'm asking is that people look at this with
open eyes," Murphy said. "It's not always to
our advantage to help (other communities) grow."
Milwaukee sells water to all or part of more than a dozen
suburbs that previously relied on well water - deals that
bring in about $74 million a year. Milwaukee water sale
supporters say it keeps rates down for the city's customers.
Water sale opponents such as Murphy and others on Milwaukee's
Common Council say an urban community surrounded by wealthier
suburbs needs to take care when it decides whether it
decides to sell an asset such as water.
"Are we somewhat cutting our throat by making it
cheaper for people to live in New Berlin?" Murphy
New Berlin Ald. Dave Ament says he understands Milwaukee's
"I think what they're driving at is that we're not
going to take their water and use it against them,"
he said. "One of their concerns is that we're going
to use their water to expand, and I certainly would not
be in favor of that, anyway, whether we had their water
The planning commission is advocating a regional study
on the future of drinking water to avert water shortages
throughout southeastern Wisconsin. But officials in Milwaukee
County have balked at paying their $261,786 share of the
$1 million study, saying it shouldn't have to pay such
a large sum when suburban communities stand to benefit
Meanwhile, Biebel said, suburban communities have several
decisions to make as the level of a deep sandstone aquifer
continues to drop - by as much as 100 feet by 2020 - causing
both water supply problems and issues with water quality
because of radioactivity or salinity.
If Lake Michigan water is not an option for those areas,
the communities might need to start relying on the shallow
aquifer, which carries with it its own set of problems,
including a negative impact on wetlands and streams.
"There aren't real great options, but there are
options," Biebel said. "It's not like anybody's
going to run out of water in the next couple of years,
but there are some major questions and expenditures that
would have to be made."