By James Rowen Special to Published Dec 28, 2009 at 3:11 PM

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Knee-deep in planning for a diversion of water from Lake Michigan, the City of Waukesha has switched horses in midstream.

Enough mixed metaphors?

Over the last few years, Waukesha has released a stream (sorry) of messages, releases and pledges about intentions to shut down its wells and bring in a cleaner water supply from Lake Michigan.

But this is a matter of science, law and politics: A compact signed by the Great Lakes governors last year says that a city like Waukesha -- entirely outside the Great Lakes basin -- must meet a stiff set of eligibility, need, technical, legal and environmental standards in order to get the water.

This is because the Great Lakes are finite, recharge slowly and require careful management as a resource that is shared by tens of millions of people in both the US and Canada.

Where Waukesha's application-drafting process is apparently hung up is figuring out how to get the water back to the Great Lakes without doing harm to the Great Lakes basin, and that includes the city's preferred discharge route -- Underwood Creek in Wauwatosa -- as well as the Menomonee River downstream which would carry Waukesha's treated wastewater by the millions of gallons daily to the lake.

Waukesha has to get its application right or else it will be turned back as incomplete or unacceptable by one of more of the states, and that would make Waukesha vulnerable to fines under a 2018 deadline it has accepted to permanently clean up its drinking water supply.

Lake Michigan is not Waukesha's only compliant water supply option: it could continue to treat its well water, or change to different, cleaner wells in Waukesha County, or perhaps take and return water from the Fox River.

But it has focused its consultants and lawyers and PR people on the Lake Michigan alternative, which means winning eight states' OK's by complying with the new Great Lakes Compact and all its rules and standards.

We'll see if switching experts at the 11th hour solves Waukesha's problems and needs, or whether it needs to spend more time fully exploring options that, to date, it has dismissed, so as not to miss the boat.

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.