By James Rowen Special to Published Oct 15, 2009 at 1:16 PM

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Some years ago, I attended a management seminar -- in Waukesha, no less -- where the take-away lesson was "Don't let someone make their problem your problem."

That is usually the goal of responsibility-avoiding politicians, and why not? It beats ineffective finger-pointing, but suggests that action is actually underway.

Transferring a problem and thus the responsibility for fixing it is exactly what the State of Wisconsin and the City of Waukesha have done, or are about to continue doing to the City of Milwaukee with regard to Waukesha's scheme for fixing its water supply problems by buying Lake Michigan water from the Milwaukee Water Works.

Waukesha officials repeated that goal on Monday night at an informational session at Waukesha City Hall, where they rolled out some of their plan to obtain the first diversion of Great Lakes water under the 2008 Great Lakes Compact that could flow to a community that is entirely outside the Great Lakes basin boundaries.

I posted on my blog an account of the meeting, including time-lines that have Waukesha on Oct. 20 initiating the process by seeking letters of intent about possibly selling water to Waukesha from Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine.

The water wouldn't begin to flow for five-to-eight years, but the beginning of the process is just around the corner.

That means the pressure is on Milwaukee, Waukesha's preferred seller; Milwaukee has the highest quality drinking water and its pipes are closest to Waukesha.

But if Milwaukee were to balk, or insist that a water sales deal include elements it has said by resolution must be included -- the buyer's adherence to good planning and Smart Growth, provision of affordable housing, sponsorship of greater transit, and other regionally cooperative policies -- Waukesha might opt for more costly and less advantageous Oak Creek or Racine water, and, no doubt, blame Milwaukee for water woes that are inherent in Waukesha's location and evolution.

The State of Wisconsin has also helped put Milwaukee up against the wall.

The Department of Natural Resources, presumably at the Governor's direction, chose not to write administrative rules last year, or during 2009, to guide a community's Great Lakes diversion application -- though Milwaukee officials twice, in writing, asked that the rules be in place before reviewing a precedent-setting application under the international, and eight-state agreement.

And it was Wisconsin, I was told (twice by different knowledgeable sources), that inserted into Compact negotiations the specific language that permits Waukesha -- though entirely outside the Great Lakes basin boundaries -- to be eligible to apply for a diversion.

The earlier Compact draft known as "Annex 2001" that was forwarded to the public for comment had no such loophole: it was Wisconsin that invented what I call the "Waukesha exception," -- accepting an application from a community outside the basin, but in a county that somewhere touches or straddles the basin boundary, as does eastern Waukesha County, at the hill on Sunny Slope Road and miles east of Waukesha city's limits.

That torturous language and geographic legerdemain allows Waukesha to insert an application into a DNR review that is less precise and regulated than what would have occured had rules been crafted.

I've also argued for some time on my blog that the other seven Great Lakes states that must unanimously approve the Waukesha application (the DNR being the eighth) may not like Wisconsin's passive / aggressive approach to Compact implementation.

So do not be surprised if one or more the states turn the application back for more work -- something the DNR could have avoided or minimized at no penalty to Waukesha had the rule-writing process begun last year when the Compact was approved.

Milwaukee Common Council members might also have had fewer questions about its role as the seller, or Wauwatose officials might have fewer concerns with Waukesha's probable return flow dumping point into their Underwood Creek, had those rules been written and the public invited in to comment on them.

You know: a little participatory democracy.

So the State and Waukesha aim to make Milwaukee and Wauwatosa solve Waukesha's water needs, and bear the brunt of dealing with both weaknesses in state regulation and Waukesha's hard push for a Lake Michigan diversion.

Final thought:

Waukesha estimated Monday that its water pipe from Milwaukee, and return flow pipe to Wauwatosa, will cost $78 million.

Put that up on your refrigerator and see if how much that number grows.

More than one Milwaukee official has said to me, in effect, "thanks for nothing."

James Rowen Special to
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who blogs at He worked as a reporter and assistant metro editor at The Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel, and held several positions with Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, including Chief of Staff. Rowen is on the board of the Institute for One Wisconsin Now, and receives funding from The Brico Fund; neither organization has control over his writing and blogging.