Opinion: Waukesha water debate pours
down on Doyle
By James Rowen for WisPolitcs.com
Published December 21st, 2004
Water rights and conservation concerns -- centered in
and beneath Waukesha -- are looming as major public policy
and political issues in southeast Wisconsin.
The implications are as varied as the fortunes of Gov.
Jim Doyle, relations between the United States and Canada,
conservation of a vital, finite resource and the health
of the Great Lakes -- home to 20 percent of the world's
There is nothing as important as fresh, clean, abundant
water, yet communities like the rapidly growing city of
Waukesha, which lie outside of the Lake Michigan basin,
must rely on well water pumped from underground aquifers
because long-standing water law and a U.S.-Canadian agreement
forbids diverting water out of the Great Lakes basin.
The agreement is based on logic and science: Lake Michigan
water that is disposed of outside the basin runs "downhill''
away from the big lake where it belongs and eventually
goes instead into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of
Look at the map: that water doesn't come back to Lake
Communities within the basin treat and return as much
waste water as is possible, keeping the Great Lakes levels
Waukesha, however, has drained its underground water
supply by more than 350 feet pulling water underground
from throughout the region into its water works.
It has continued to empty the region's aquifers so rapidly
that it is now tapping into deep, contaminated water.
That water is costly to clean, yet Waukesha does not have
significant water conservation programs in place, according
to Dan Duchniak, manager of Waukesha's Water Utility.
Instead, Waukesha and other communities to its west keep
converting farmland into subdivisions and roads and driveways
and parking lots and factory sites -- an alarming trend
because much of that development is covering up the very
raw land through which rain and snow must seep and replenish
the underground supply.
The massive Pabst Farms residential/commercial/hospital
mega-development is one major example.
Another is a Waukesha hotel's planned 2005 conversion
into a giant water theme park designed to look like the
Victorian-era spas that used to bring tourists to Waukesha
for the healing waters (now long gone) that literally
used to bubble out of the ground.
Yet Waukesha is not talking about water conservation.
Instead, it said a couple of weeks ago -- again -- that
it wants a diversion from Lake Michigan.
That would require Doyle to carry the plan to the other
Great Lakes governors for their unanimous approval. That's
asking a lot.
Doyle would run into a brick wall of opposition across
the state and throughout the upper Midwest if he were
to advocate for Waukesha's request. That wall would be
higher and thicker if Doyle were to go the extra mile
that Waukesha also wants -- obtaining the diversion, yet
refusing to agree to return treated waste water to Lake
Waukesha instead says it wants to save money by dumping
its treated waste water into the Fox River, which does
not empty into and help recharge Lake Michigan. It also
says it is concerned about helping to maintain the Fox
River basin. As with water conservation, Waukesha's priorities
Doyle is now co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes
governors group. That body is studying rule changes that
conceivably could enable Waukesha to win its case. So
far, Doyle has been relatively noncommittal on the matter.
When Waukesha first raised the diversion possibility,
Doyle's water experts privately asked the city to cool
its diversion talk. Their intention was to lower the issue's
profile and let the Great Lakes governors' rule-making
review run its course.
The rule-making drafting began in 2001. It's a complex
process. Big agriculture, major industries, plus entire
municipal, state, regional and national economies, and
U.S., Canadian and tribal relations hang in the balance.
Many observers believe that a diversion for Waukesha
would kick off multiple requests all the way from Waukesha
County to Jefferson County to northern Illinois and all
the way to California. Such a chain of events could put
Doyle in between two powerful camps as the 2006 re-election
campaign comes into focus.
On the one hand, there are conservationists who see Waukesha's
expansion and additional diversions westward through Wisconsin
and beyond as an economic threat to older, established
communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline -- Milwaukee,
Racine, Kenosha -- as a threat to land and water preservation,
and a danger to the health of the Great Lakes basin.
Many of these folks are Democrats, and they will want
Doyle to block or maneuver around Waukesha's request.
On the other side, there are business expansionists statewide
and in Waukesha who are pushing hard for the water diversion.
Many of these folks are Republicans, and they will want
Doyle to help Waukesha's request succeed.
The Great Lakes governors and Canadian provincial leaders
are going to make final recommendations on changes to
U.S.-Canadian water rights agreements early next year.
Those recommendations will then go to all Great Lakes'
state and provincial legislatures for ratification in
mid-2005, followed by U.S. congressional and Canadian
Native American tribes that have been invited into the
process as advisers, not as full partners despite their
nation status, are organizing growing opposition. It is
unclear whether their lack of inclusion will seriously
complicate the process.
All of this means that the issue is a very big deal,
that Waukesha will be site of the next battle over a diversion
of water from a Great Lake, and all of that puts Doyle
in a very key position.
There are some indicators about how the issue could be
Doyle and Republican legislative leaders cooperated on
passing the Jobs Creation Act in 2004. The bill removed
several layers of state environmental review for projects
near bodies of water.
Both parties got what they wanted: positive identification
with a jobs and economic development agenda. Doyle managed
to push his Grow Wisconsin agenda and was not boxed into
a narrowly defined, pro-environmental stance that his
opponents could label as anti-jobs.
If the water diversion issue is labeled simply as another
purely economic issue -- the way a Scott Walker for governor
campaign likely would frame it -- it's conceivable Doyle
might be inclined to help Waukesha get the support it
A reality for Doyle is that some other Great Lakes states
and Canadian provinces, plus a southeastern Wisconsin
environmental movement already inflamed by the region's
freeway-expansion binge, would bring strong pro-conservation,
anti-diversion pressure to all the Great Lakes governors,
and certainly to Doyle, to deny the request -- or at the
least to require Waukesha to implement and demonstrate
The good thing for Doyle, and more importantly for the
conservation ethic that is needed to protect the basin
Great Lakes basin, is that Waukesha's request is based
on weak politics and porous credibility: the city has
not been conserving, it continues to over-consume, it
hurts its case by saying it would not return water to
the basin, and it appears indifferent at best to the precedent
its diversion would set.
No one wants to see Great Lakes water piped to green
up lawns in Las Vegas, but that is the risk that Waukesha
alone seems comfortable taking.
In short, its request is laden with a breath-taking sense
of entitlement, and begs to be shot down.
Those points will not be lost on the other Great Lakes
states, one of which could do Doyle an election-year favor
by putting the proposal out its misery without Doyle being
forced to play the heavy.
For Doyle, and for Wisconsin, the entire matter could
be framed as a plus.
He could use his leadership position to articulate a
vision that water conservation should be a top priority
for the Great Lakes states. The eight U.S. Great Lakes
governors and two Canadian provincial premiers recently
laid out a plan for ridding the lakes of pollutants and
invasive plants and fish: water conservation goes hand-in-hand.
Doyle, in the Wisconsin tradition of Gaylord Nelson and
Aldo Leopold and John Muir, has the opportunity to be
the champion. He has a rich tradition of conservation
available as a platform. It is a history that many other
states do not have.
It is part of what makes Wisconsin special: it is a legacy
that he can embrace.
It's as Wisconsin as cheese curds, the Progressive Party
and the Green Bay Packers Sweep.
Doyle could direct his administration to make water conservation
the underpinning of an updated Wisconsin Idea. He could
direct incentives to communities, industries and development
projects that agree to link water conservation and job
creation, thus doing a good thing for Wisconsin's environment,
for the state's economy, and for Wisconsin's long love
affair with Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and all the state's
There are good models centered on the wise use of water
that make these connections. Look no farther than the
public-private partnership in Milwaukee's Menomonee River
Valley, where jobs AND restored land AND clean water AND
recreation AND a raised quality of life are replacing
blight and pollution and unemployment.
The solution doesn't have to be water slides and subdivisions
on farm fields.
Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy-maker who formerly
advised ex-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist