By James Rowen Special to Published Oct 27, 2009 at 1:15 PM

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Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, for whom I worked from 1996-2004, got a laugh from audiences when he said there were two predictable phases to major Wisconsin highway plans:

Phase One -- Too Soon To Tell.

Phase Two -- Too Late To Do Anything About It.

Which really did sum up the way that highway planning was carried out.

At the beginning, officials would talk about researching, scoping, blueprints and drafts and alternatives A, B, C, D, and more.

Decisions were hinted at, but tweaking and brainstorming and best-practicing galore was taking place -- really, for sure! -- so things were described as fluid, tentative and preliminary.

Then, following set-piece, pro-forma hearings where comments were taken about those preliminary conclusions, out popped the recommended, preferred alternative.

And it was "Thank you very much for your input, Mr. and Mrs. Bucky Citizen -- but we'll be sticking with the preliminary conclusions because time's a wastin', and it's too darn late to make any changes."

The same faux drama in two acts will be played out in December in Waukesha, where officials will roll out the city's application for a Great Lakes diversion, with return flow flushed back to Lake Michigan via Underwood Creek.

A couple of weeks ago, Waukesha released some information about the plan -- but key elements were said to still be in the thinking stage.

Wait for the formal application, the public was told, though people were free to submit questions in writing.

Said the officials: "Wait for the application. It's a-comin', in December," which is when the lay public will be asked to read hundreds of pages of analyses, maps, charts, scientific reports and other technical stuff -- or just go with the executive summary, where all your questions will be raised, and answered for you ...

But everyone knows the key decisions already have been made: The Waukesha Water Utility and its brace of consultants, along with staff and the mayor, have settled on the Lake Michigan diversion as the solution to the community's water supply needs (despite other alternatives being available) and Underwood Creek will get the return flow -- because greater political objections have been raised downstream over using the Root River, an alternative wastewater route.

And hooking up the sewage for treatment to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District? Out of the question! Don't even suggest that. It's too expensive, since Waukesha wants access to Lake Michigan on the cheap.

Does anyone really believe that Waukesha officials listen carefully enough to critics, or outside experts, to reconsider the diversion plan, or the Underwood Creek return flow solution?

Here's the tip-off: Waukesha has said it wants to get the application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in February, so, unlike the years spent working behind the scenes on the application, the public review process will be over and done within days and weeks, not weeks and months -- and over the holidays, to boot.

That leaves the next level of comment review-and-dismiss to the DNR, which has already adopted a laissez-faire role in this inter-governmental stagecraft.

Right now, I am sure the DNR would say it's "Too Soon To Know" the outcome of its review.

But if the DNR approves the application with its Phase Two, "Too Late ..." rubber stamp, expect one or more of the other Great Lakes states to send in some real input by implementing a Phase Three:


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.