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Great Lakes Article:

Limits on selling water may affect few
Laws on diverting Great Lakes water may pose a greater hurdle
By Corissa Jansen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
04/21/03

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

$74 million
The amount of money Milwaukee brings in selling water to more than a dozen suburbs that previously relied on well water

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 Lakes.

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.

Limited interest
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 says.

New Berlin Ald. Dave Ament says he understands Milwaukee's position.

"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 or not."

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 the most.

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."

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