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Planning group seeks water supply study
Official calls inquiry urgent as shortages loom
Scott Williams
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Warning that future water shortages could lead to conflicts among neighboring communities, a regional planning group is urging development of a new strategy for sharing water resources in Milwaukee and the suburbs.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission recommends a three-year, $1 million study that would re-examine laws that restrict the use of Lake Michigan water in most areas outside Milwaukee County.

Anticipating political obstacles to expanded use of the lake, the commission also urges consideration of such alternatives as conserving underground water supplies and connecting localized water systems to share in emergencies.

Phil Evenson, executive director of SEWRPC, said he is anxious to begin the study because water shortages are looming as residential growth depletes the region's supply.

"There is an increasing urgency," he said. "Problems are only going to get worse."

If the group's board directors approves the proposal next month, seven southeastern Wisconsin counties would be asked to contribute about $100,000 each toward the cost of the study. The commission would provide the remaining estimated $300,000.

Evenson said he hopes to begin the project in 2003.

Known as a trouble-shooter on issues related to transportation and the environment, the City of Pewaukee-based commission serves Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.

Water key to area

Racine County Executive Jean Jacobson said she regards the water supply as a top priority for the region.

"Just about everything we do today has to do with water quality," she said. "It doesn't matter where the municipal lines and county lines are. This is a regional issue."

In an outline of the three-year study, the regional planning commission proposes to develop an inventory of water supplies, analyze consumption trends, project future needs and recommend ways of reallocating supplies.

The commission reports that water management long has been handled on a localized basis, but should be tackled regionally.

"In the absence of such a framework plan, increasing conflicts may be expected to develop between the efforts of individual communities," the SEWRPC proposal states.

On the issue of Lake Michigan water, the commission proposes to analyze international laws that severely restrict using lake water west of a subcontinental divide, which cuts through the region and separates the lake watershed from that of the Mississippi River.

Those laws have left communities such as Waukesha, Hartford, Oconomowoc, Burlington and Elkhorn cut off from Lake Michigan water.

Commission officials question whether the U.S. government and other authorities would soften on expanding the availability of lake water.

"The existing legal structure may constitute a significant constraint on the development of alternative plans," the proposal states.

As another option, the commission urges consideration of whether some municipalities already eligible to use lake water could be persuaded to give up their local well systems in the interest of conserving water in underground aquifers. Those communities include Oak Creek, Germantown and Whitefish Bay.

Water Works has capacity

Milwaukee Water Works Assistant Superintendent Dale Mejaki said his system, which operates far below capacity, could easily supply lake water to those municipalities and others beyond the subcontinental divide.

But although broadening the use of the Water Works "makes perfect sense to me," Mejaki said, the issue often stirs opposition among some Milwaukee city leaders who are unwilling to do business with suburban communities seen as competitors.

"They struggle with that all the time," he said.

Some communities in Waukesha County have gingerly negotiated arrangements with Milwaukee to tap into Lake Michigan.

Waukesha County Parks & Land Use Director Dale Shaver said he hopes the regional planning commission's efforts will reopen the possibility of making Lake Michigan more easily available to a larger region.

Waukesha County, along with Racine and Kenosha counties, had asked the planning commission to consider such a study.

Shaver said he is certain his county will embrace the commission's $1 million project, because water supplies are a growing concern in the fast-developing county.

"The timing is right," he said. "It's something we're very concerned about."

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