COMMENTARY: New Berlin Water Diversion
Try Shows Problems Ahead
By James Rowen
Published July 3, 2006
MILWAUKEE -- While reams of copy and hours of meetings
have been devoted to whether the City of Waukesha would
-- or should -- apply for a controversial diversion of
water from Lake Michigan, the City of New Berlin has,
without fanfare, sent an application for diversion permission
of its own to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Almost as quietly, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm refused
to even consider the request, showing the easiest solution
to Waukesha's water woes faces big hurdles.
New Berlin currently buys City of Milwaukee water for
eastern New Berlin; the diversion sought would extend
Lake Michigan water to New Berlin's western portion outside
the Great Lakes basin on the western side of the subcontinental
The March 28th New Berlin application says the city would
need 1.875 million diverted gallons per day this year
for customers in its western portion, rising to 2.480
million gallons daily by 2050.
Prepared for New Berlin by the Waukesha-based consulting
firm Ruekert-Mielke, the application was reviewed by the
DNR, where Scott Hassett, the DNR secretary, then forwarded
as "complete" to the other seven U.S. Great
Lakes states for their review, records show.
Diversions are governed by a U.S.-Canadian compact that
has been in place since 1985 and is in the first stages
of being amended.
All eight Great Lakes US states would have had to give
their approval to New Berlin's application, and the two
Canadian provinces bordering Great Lakes would have had
to be consulted, before water were to flow for use in
western New Berlin.
Laws and procedures governing such diversions in the
compact had been under review for four years by the Great
Lakes states and provinces since 2001, but none have adopted
the proposed changes.
In part because those changes have not yet been approved,
New Berlin's application ran into immediate opposition
from Michigan, where concern about diversions of water
out of the Great Lakes basin is always a hot topic.
Granholm said in a statement Wednesday that while she
has forwarded the New Berlin application to appropriate
Michigan officials for their review, she "would not
consider the application for diversion."
That effectively puts New Berlin's application in legal
limbo and dead in the water.
Granholm cited existing Michigan law and the fact that
no Great Lakes state had yet to pass legislation to implement
the pending procedure and law changes covering diversions.
That process could take up to 10 years, observers generally
New Berlin Mayor Jack Chiovatero said Friday that he
knew the diversion application was a long shot, calling
it "a test case" that he had hoped might get
favorable treatment from the states.
Chiovatero said his community faced an expensive federal
requirement to provide drinking water with its naturally-occurring
The New Berlin application took a number of Wisconsin
environmental organizations by surprise, in part because
the Wisconsin Legislature has created a study committee
that is expected to take much of 2007 to recommend how
the new diversion procedures should be incorporated into
In the past, Wisconsin has been a leader in water conservation
Curiously, there was no public disclosure of the New
Berlin application by Wisconsin officials while they reviewed
it and then sent it to the other states: Michigan officials,
however, immediately disclosed the application's existence
because their laws require such disclosure.
Though the City of Milwaukee would be the most likely
source for diverted water to New Berlin because it already
sends water for use in eastern New Berlin, Milwaukee city
officials were kept in the dark about the application
There is another transparency issue related to the application:
While Ruekert-Mielke has been under contract to New Berlin
since 2003 for water issues that include possible diversions,
the firm is also the consultant to the Southeastern Regional
Planning Commission (SEWRPC) for that body's high-profile
comprehensive regional water study.
The SEWRPC study will review and make recommendations
on several regional water supply options, including diversions
of Lake Michigan water, which could be the study's most
The SEWRPC committee has only begun discussing diversion
criteria and guidelines in the most preliminary fashion,
with SEWRPC staff and the consulting company framing the
Phil Evenson, the SEWRPC executive director, said in
an e-mail Friday that using the same consulting company
that prepared the New Berlin diversion application would
not bias the SEWRPC study.
"They have been retained as technical, not policy,
consultants to the commission," said Evenson. "....because
they serve many water utility clients in the region, have
a great deal of knowledge about the existing water systems
serving the region, and have significant staff expertise."
"R&M is not responsible for plan formulation
and policy determination. Our staff and the committee
will do that. As such, R&M is free to work with their
municipal clients in pursuing local objectives, such as
you cite in New Berlin."
--Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant and former
Milwaukee city official.