By Jim Rowen for   Published May 11, 2004 at 5:21 AM

{image1}A year-and-a-half ago, then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, several Milwaukee aldermen and local environmentalist activists met at Lake Park, but hardly to picnic. They were there to denounce any plan to divert Lake Michigan water out of the Great Lakes' watershed -- and across the subcontinental divide in Brookfield -- to the fast-growing but water-starved Waukesha County suburbs.

In November 2002, the group was reacting to a plan floated by southeast Wisconsin regional planners to require Milwaukee County and six others to put up the lion's share of a $1 million to study water issues, including looming shortages, especially in Waukesha.

Ald. Fred Gordon summed up the critics' mood that chilly day by calling a possible diversion across the subcontinental diversion "unconscionable."

The study never materialized, in part because international agreements virtually forbid such diversions. (Water sales by Milwaukee to suburbs within the Lake Michigan watershed are allowed; the most recent one was established last year to New Berlin after a contentious Milwaukee Common Council debate about sprawl.)

But water problems, especially across the subcontinental divide in western Waukesha County, are accelerating just as fast as farmland is platted into subdivisions. And that makes the administration of new Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and certain Milwaukee City Council members worried that efforts to please thirsty suburbs may set a harmful precedent.

Some Waukesha County water is naturally irradiated and unhealthy. Treatment to make it safe is costly: The city of Waukesha is facing millions of dollars in cleanup costs ordered by the federal government. Another costly alternative is digging even deeper into the region's stressed aquifer. And piping into regional rivers for more water is expensive, too.

Regardless, sprawl is marching west to Jefferson County, with developers turning cornfields into big-lot houses, complete with swimming pools and multi-acre lawns that require plenty of watering. Look no farther than the upscale Pabst Farms mega-development on both sides of I-94 at State Highway 67. There, a city with 900 upscale homes on 1,500 acres is rising even though the aquifer in the area is dropping.

This all makes Lake Michigan's off-limits water even more tempting.

Now fast-forward to April 21 of this year, when Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle surprised some with a portion of his Earth Day 2004 remarks also delivered on Milwaukee's lakefront. He spoke not far from where the anti-sprawl activists held their 2002 news conference.

The surprise wasn't Doyle's tough stand against diverting Great Lakes water to places like Arizona and Nevada; no one in Wisconsin supports exporting Great Lakes water to the arid West.

But Doyle raised some eyebrows when he added that he might support a diversion from Lake Michigan -- and out of the watershed -- across the subcontinental divide to Waukesha County.

Doyle has on his desk an August 2003 report from the city of Waukesha and the Waukesha Water Utility that asks for Doyle's to help convince other Great Lakes officials to approve the construction of a pipeline to carry 20 millions of water a day from Lake Michigan, across the subcontinental divide. The goal: alleviate the city of Waukesha's problems with a more regional solution.

Waukesha Water Utility Manager Daniel Duchniak, in an interview, called the report " a roadmap," a precursor to a formal request. "Like it or not, Lake Michigan is our own backyard," he said, adding that he hoped Doyle and Milwaukee could work together to make the water flow.

Twenty million gallons is a very big diversion, and one virtually banned by current international law. But Doyle's speech suggested at least the possibility that the Waukesha plan may end up with his blessing -- something it would need to overcome a myriad of legal and political obstacles.

Any new diversion of water from the Great Lakes is made nearly impossible under the Great Lakes Charter and other agreements that cover eight Great Lakes states, including Wisconsin, and two Canadian provinces. The agreements allow a single U.S. governor or Canadian premier to veto a diversion request out of the Great Lakes watershed.

Few requests are made because rejection is so simple. Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, for example, vetoed one in 1992 for an Indiana community that had a poisoned water supply because he didn't want to set a precedent and open the floodgates to western states or foreign countries that crave Great Lakes water.

When water is sent out of the watershed it doesn't drain back. Land west of the Sunny Slope Ridge in Waukesha County drains away from Lake Michigan into tributaries of the Mississippi River. Rainfall doesn't even come close to replacing what is diverted.

Replacement, so the saying goes about Great Lakes diversions, is the key.

But Waukesha is making its pitch at the right time, because the Great Lakes Charter is undergoing its first major review since its 1985 creation. A charter official said last year that its working committees were considering reducing thresholds for proposed diversions from 5 million to 3 million gallons daily -- or just 15 percent of what Waukesha says it wants. The rule drafts are due in June, to be followed by hearings.

Waukesha's timing is also good because Doyle this summer will assume the chairmanship of the Council of Great Lakes Governors- - a group with great influence in the charter review. So Doyle is in a pivotal position to carry Waukesha's water, so to speak, even if another Great Lakes governor blocked it.

It is in the rewriting of the rules that diversions could be made easier for communities near the Great Lakes. Duchniak said there were many such communities and all were watching to see how Waukesha's situation and eventual request would fare.

Patrick Henderson, a Doyle spokesman, said in an e-mail exchange that while no formal request from Waukesha had been received, the rules were definitely in play.

"The governor is committed to working with the other Great Lakes governors and the Canadian premiers to establish a decision-making process that will protect the Great Lakes and allow for the appropriate use of Great Lakes water," he said.

Working against Waukesha's proposal, along with the environmental and sprawl arguments, is its failure to meet the replacement test. It does not guarantee the return to Lake Michigan of an amount of water equal to the diversion. Its proposal pledges only "preventing or minimizing Great Lakes Basin water loss."

Replacement could be achieved through what some would say is a distasteful tradeoff: Milwaukee water for suburban sewage -- in other words, using the metropolitan sewerage system to treat an equal amount of wastewater to be discharged back into Lake Michigan.

But Waukesha says even that is too expensive -- and unnecessary -- arguing that its diversion plan would indirectly replenish what it removed from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha claims that drawing 20 million gallons daily from Lake Michigan water would allow it to cut back significantly the amount of groundwater it pumps from its stressed and contaminated aquifer.

That cutback would then allow the un-pumped groundwater to flow beneath the subcontinental divide and find its way back into Lake Michigan, Waukesha says. The state is reviewing that claim, and if Doyle were to propose it to charter members, there would be another analysis.

Duchniak said that the underground flow and interconnections of the region's water means that it is inaccurate to consider piping the water out to be a diversion.

"We just want to take our vertical straw," he said, referring to Waukesha's well-piping, "and make it horizontal."

Waukesha also pledged to make other improvements and investments to the watershed.

An April 25 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial said the Waukesha plan was unacceptable. "Simply put," the editorial writers said, "if the water shipped out of Lake Michigan isn't sent back to the lake, it shouldn't be shipped out in the first place. That reasoning is valid if it applies to Las Vegas or to the Town of Summit." A portion of the Pabst Farm project is in the Town of Summit, with the rest in the City of Oconomowoc.

The editorial writers urged Doyle to abide by his own words at his pre-Earth Day speech: "The key is replacement," adding: "Doyle should be wary of lending his support to any shipment of water out of the Great Lakes basin, even to nearby areas such as Waukesha County."

Diversion opponents worry that pumping fresh water across the subcontinental divide would pump fresh development away from Milwaukee and sprawl across the region. "I do think it's a big deal. It sets a dangerous precedent," said Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy. Murphy had spoken at the 2002 anti-diversion news conference at Lake Park.

The council's senior member, Murphy is also its water expert, having studied Waukesha water resources, including the troubled aquifer beneath Pabst Farms, for his bachelor's degree in geology from UW-Milwaukee. In addition to exacerbating sprawl, Murphy said a diversion would increase the split in the region "between the haves and the have-nots."

Murphy said existing resolutions opposing diversions across the subcontinental divide were already official city of Milwaukee policy. But because there were many new council members who needed "to get up to speed," Murphy said he would introduce another resolution against Waukesha's proposal.

Murphy also said that Waukesha's proposal should be discussed together with social, economic and jobs issues, and he hoped for cooperation from Doyle on the matter.

Also looking for a broader context in which to discuss the proposal was Pat Curley, chief of staff to Barrett. Curley said recently that Barrett would meet soon with Doyle and other Great Lakes mayors, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, to discuss the Waukesha proposal. Daley directs a group of Great Lakes mayors that addresses Great Lakes water preservation and related matters.

It is conceivable that with the right set of financial incentives and replacement guarantees -- or a reworking of the definition of what replacement can mean -- firm prohibitions will be altered for the benefit of communities like Waukesha. The trick will be to prevent wholesale movement of water to the West and to overcome environmental concerns about sprawl and accompanying air and water pollution.

Curley said that the replacement of water diverted from Lake Michigan was "a key issue, absolutely," and, like Murphy, said that water diversions had to be discussed as part of "a package" of economic issues to protect the city's future.

Former Mayor John Norquist had taken a harder line against any water sale across the subcontinental divide and had criticized suggestions that the financial benefits to the city through a major sale processed by the Milwaukee Water Utility would have balanced out the sprawl implications.

Curley added that without a broader discussion of economic development issues, merely diverting water to Waukesha "doesn't seem like a very good thing for the city long-term."

Jim Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who used to work for ex-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.