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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 divide.

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 believe.

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 radium removed.

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 Wisconsin law.

In the past, Wisconsin has been a leader in water conservation and management.

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 until mid-week.

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 controversial issue.

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 discussion.

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."

Continued Evenson:

"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.


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