Water wake-up for region
By Rich Kirchen
The Business Journal of Milwaukee
Published June 15, 2007
Free, clean water. Brett Miller thought that would convince Waukesha city officials to back an upscale subdivision his firm proposed near the Vernon Marsh.
After all, the farmland where Fiduciary Real Estate Development wants to build includes a site city officials covet as the source for new wells to improve Waukesha's substandard water supply. Fiduciary Real Estate offered the well site in exchange for the city annexing the property and rezoning it.
But water is becoming a less-abundant resource in southeast Wisconsin, at times stranding developers such as Fiduciary in a swamp of uncertainty. Despite spending the past year negotiating with Waukesha officials, the Milwaukee developer still has no deal.
"The politics of water out there -- it's emotional," said Miller, a vice president at Fiduciary.
The debate over water supply in southeastern Wisconsin is not only emotional, it's becoming more widespread. It pits cities across the region against neighboring townships, the city of Milwaukee vs. Waukesha County, and the state of Wisconsin against other Great Lakes states.
Water policy and supply will dictate if and where billions of dollars in new residential, commercial and industrial development will appear in southeastern Wisconsin. Whether it's Fiduciary Real Estate's proposed Waukesha subdivision or Abbott Laboratories Inc.'s proposed $1.2 billion corporate park in Pleasant Prairie, water supply will have a huge impact on economic development.
The debate also has the potential to rip apart the regional cooperation that has emerged in southeastern Wisconsin over the past two years through the M7 economic development initiative that involves seven counties. Many of those communities had fought for years over economic development, growth and sewer issues.
"Potential conflicts around water will determine the course of southeast Wisconsin's economy and its vitality," said Jodi Habush Sinykin, a Milwaukee environmental lawyer.
Until recent years, water from Lake Michigan and wells has been abundant and cheap in southeastern Wisconsin and has helped fuel industrial growth and new development. Business executives and residents have taken for granted that water would be available when and where they needed it.
The spigot is not yet closing, but some areas it serves are facing a slower flow.
The city of Waukesha is a prime example. The city has been pumping more water out of its deep wells than the wells can recharge, and the declining water table has led to rising levels of possibly cancer-causing radium. The city faces an order from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to reduce radium to acceptable levels.
In the short term, city officials plan to access the underground water on the Fiduciary Real Estate property about a half-mile south of the city border along county Highway I in the town of Waukesha, and blend that water with the existing supply to reduce radium levels, said Mayor Larry Nelson.
In the long term, the city is exploring either buying Lake Michigan water from the city of Milwaukee or installing wells in western Waukesha County and pumping it to Waukesha, he said.
Both long-term solutions point to the crux of water supply challenges in southeastern Wisconsin. Buying water from Milwaukee is not possible today for Waukesha because of federal policy that prohibits pumping water from a Great Lake to an area west of the subcontinental divide.
Drilling wells in western Waukesha County is likely to draw opposition, and possibly lawsuits, from those communities that want to protect their groundwater resources.
Nelson supports adopting the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which would set guidelines for communities like Waukesha to make their case for piping water from Lake Michigan.
The state Legislature is discussing whether to enact enabling legislation that would give Wisconsin's approval to the compact, which is designed to preserve Great Lakes water for the surrounding states and Canadian provinces and block water-starved states in the South and Southwest from tapping the freshwater supply.
Gov. Jim Doyle has already signed the compact, but it needs legislative action by all Great Lakes states before moving to Congress.
About 62 percent of the land in southeast Wisconsin is west of the subcontinental divide, according to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The situation is most acute in two fast-growing counties: Waukesha, where only the eastern tier falls within the Lake Michigan water zone; and Kenosha, where about 80 percent of land is west of the divide.
SEWRPC officials project that demand for municipal water will increase by 91.6 percent in Kenosha County by 2035 and by 80.7 percent in Waukesha County.
Thus, if Abbott Laboratories is to proceed with plans for a $1.2 billion complex in the Kenosha County community of Pleasant Prairie, it will need Pleasant Prairie to get an additional water supply. Also, the city of New Berlin in Waukesha County is seeking Milwaukee water to extend municipal water west of the divide, but that request is on hold pending legislative debate on the Great Lakes Water Compact.
Bill Mielke, chief executive officer of Ruekert-Mielke Inc., a Waukesha civil engineering firm, works with dozens of area communities dealing with the new realities of water in southeastern Wisconsin. One solution is for communities to enact conservation measures so they require less water, he said.
Another possible answer is to tap the shallow aquifer in counties such as Waukesha, where groundwater is abundant, he said. Those ecosystems can be fragile, however, so they would require careful management, possibly by a regional water authority, he said.
The Regional Planning Commission, which has been meeting with local government and business representatives, is developing a regional water supply plan that will suggest water policy guidelines through 2035. The guidelines, scheduled for completion by the end of this year, may suggest that some areas of the region cannot sustain development due to lack of water supply.
Closely watching compact
So far, most developers have been able to find sites with ample municipal or well water, said Matt Moroney, executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association and a member of the SEWRPC water advisory committee. Developers are watching the Great Lakes Water Compact legislation and the recommendations of the SEWRPC report for directions on where water will be available for future projects.
Miller said he doesn't know what his firm's next move will be. It's unlikely to drop the proposal after spending $4.15 million to acquire the farmland and a section of marsh land in June 2006. Fiduciary has proposed donating the undevelopable marsh property to the state DNR.
Meanwhile, the Waukesha Common Council in May enacted eminent-domain proceedings to take the well site from Fiduciary. While Nelson still hopes to work out a compromise with the developer, the city Plan Commission and aldermen so far aren't interested.
Miller views the situation as the reality of pursuing development in Waukesha County in an era when water supply issues have become contentious.
"We're disappointed it came to this," he said.
Water problems could help region in long run, provide future road map
Southeast Wisconsin is grappling with water supply issues that could prove to be a selling point for the region in the long term.
Some Milwaukee-area leaders, including the Milwaukee 7 regional development group, believe solutions developed here will serve three purposes.
First, they will provide a road map for future development in the Milwaukee area. Second, they will protect Lake Michigan as a recreational and economic asset. Third, metro Milwaukee can become a mecca for expertise on water supply issues and water-related industries.
For example, Waukesha civil engineering firm Ruekert & Mielke, which is working with multiple communities on their water challenges, could export those skills to other areas of the country that face water shortages. Likewise, other consultants, engineering firms, attorneys, developers, academics and public entities could sell their expertise elsewhere.
"We can fashion solutions to water resource problems here and develop marketable expertise for places like Las Vegas with water issues," said Peter McAvoy, who consults on water policy issues as a vice president of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center in Milwaukee.
Southeastern Wisconsin business leaders need to recognize that Lake Michigan is an economic asset in terms not only of recreation and aesthetics, but also the industries it supports, including agriculture, tourism and forestry, McAvoy said.
"It's an incredible water resource that distinguishes us from the rest of the world," he said. "We should see the lake as a world-class asset and manage it more wisely."
Maintaining both Lake Michigan and well-water supplies in southeastern Wisconsin can support new generations of residents and water-dependent industries, he said.
Rich Meeusen, chief executive officer of Badger Meter Inc., a Brown Deer manufacturer of flow-measurement devices, takes that a step further and points to the dozens of southeastern Wisconsin manufacturers that make products for water-related industries.
He has proposed a Greater Milwaukee Committee task force to encourage those firms to collaborate and strengthen metropolitan Milwaukee's position in water-related industries.
In turn, a cluster of those firms can provide products and insights to communities here and elsewhere that face water shortages, he said.
"We need that focus as a way to attract business and give us economic growth," Meeusen said.
Following on Meeusen's proposal, the Milwaukee 7 regional development group is organizing a "water summit" scheduled for July 25 at Discovery World where experts will discuss strategies for converting the area's expertise in water technology into a stronger industry cluster. Topics will include boosting partnerships among manufacturers and transferring more research and development from area manufacturers and universities into technology that can be marketed, said Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
-- Rich Kirchen
STRATEGIES TO CUT WATER USAGE
Water conservation measures could reduce pressure on the Milwaukee area's water supply. Strategies include:
- Public information and education on using less water
- Restrictions on lawn watering
- Plumbing retrofits
- Toilet replacement (smaller tanks)
- Water softener replacement
- Washing machine replacement
- Water rate structures that encourage conservation
- Returning used water to Lake Michigan
Source: Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission
Demand from municipal water utilities in southeast Wisconsin is projected to increase 22.4 percent by 2035, with half of the increase coming from users shifting from wells to municipal water. Here is a county-by-county breakdown ranked by percentage growth.
Figures are in thousands of gallons.
||Daily demand 2005
||Daily demand 2006
Source: Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission
CHANGES IN WATER USAGE
The trends in surface water use in southeast Wisconsin (in millions of gallons per day):
This story is part of The Business Journal's special report on the water supply issues facing southeastern Wisconsin, "Water Worries."