By James Rowen for   Published Dec 21, 2004 at 5:23 AM

{image1} Water rights and conservation concerns -- centered in and beneath Waukesha -- are looming as major public policy and political issues in southeast Wisconsin.

The implications are as varied as the fortunes of Gov. Jim Doyle, relations between the United States and Canada, conservation of a vital, finite resource and the health of the Great Lakes -- home to 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

There is nothing as important as fresh, clean, abundant water, yet communities like the rapidly growing city of Waukesha, which lie outside of the Lake Michigan basin, must rely on well water pumped from underground aquifers because long-standing water law and a U.S.-Canadian agreement forbids diverting water out of the Great Lakes basin.

The agreement is based on logic and science: Lake Michigan water that is disposed of outside the basin runs "downhill'' away from the big lake where it belongs and eventually goes instead into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Look at the map: that water doesn't come back to Lake Michigan.

Communities within the basin treat and return as much waste water as is possible, keeping the Great Lakes levels relatively stable.

Waukesha, however, has drained its underground water supply by more than 350 feet pulling water underground from throughout the region into its water works.

It has continued to empty the region's aquifers so rapidly that it is now tapping into deep, contaminated water. That water is costly to clean, yet Waukesha does not have significant water conservation programs in place, according to Dan Duchniak, manager of Waukesha's Water Utility.

Instead, Waukesha and other communities to its west keep converting farmland into subdivisions and roads and driveways and parking lots and factory sites -- an alarming trend because much of that development is covering up the very raw land through which rain and snow must seep and replenish the underground supply.

The massive Pabst Farms residential/commercial/hospital mega-development is one major example.

Another is a Waukesha hotel's planned 2005 conversion into a giant water theme park designed to look like the Victorian-era spas that used to bring tourists to Waukesha for the healing waters (now long gone) that literally used to bubble out of the ground.

Yet Waukesha is not talking about water conservation. Instead, it said a couple of weeks ago -- again -- that it wants a diversion from Lake Michigan.

That would require Doyle to carry the plan to the other Great Lakes governors for their unanimous approval. That's asking a lot.

Doyle would run into a brick wall of opposition across the state and throughout the upper Midwest if he were to advocate for Waukesha's request. That wall would be higher and thicker if Doyle were to go the extra mile that Waukesha also wants -- obtaining the diversion, yet refusing to agree to return treated waste water to Lake Michigan.

Waukesha instead says it wants to save money by dumping its treated waste water into the Fox River, which does not empty into and help recharge Lake Michigan. It also says it is concerned about helping to maintain the Fox River basin. As with water conservation, Waukesha's priorities lie elsewhere.

Doyle is now co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes governors group. That body is studying rule changes that conceivably could enable Waukesha to win its case. So far, Doyle has been relatively noncommittal on the matter.

When Waukesha first raised the diversion possibility, Doyle's water experts privately asked the city to cool its diversion talk. Their intention was to lower the issue's profile and let the Great Lakes governors' rule-making review run its course.

The rule-making drafting began in 2001. It's a complex process. Big agriculture, major industries, plus entire municipal, state, regional and national economies, and U.S., Canadian and tribal relations hang in the balance.

Many observers believe that a diversion for Waukesha would kick off multiple requests all the way from Waukesha County to Jefferson County to northern Illinois and all the way to California. Such a chain of events could put Doyle in between two powerful camps as the 2006 re-election campaign comes into focus.

On the one hand, there are conservationists who see Waukesha's expansion and additional diversions westward through Wisconsin and beyond as an economic threat to older, established communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline -- Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha -- as a threat to land and water preservation, and a danger to the health of the Great Lakes basin.

Many of these folks are Democrats, and they will want Doyle to block or maneuver around Waukesha's request.

On the other side, there are business expansionists statewide and in Waukesha who are pushing hard for the water diversion. Many of these folks are Republicans, and they will want Doyle to help Waukesha's request succeed.

The Great Lakes governors and Canadian provincial leaders are going to make final recommendations on changes to U.S.-Canadian water rights agreements early next year.

Those recommendations will then go to all Great Lakes' state and provincial legislatures for ratification in mid-2005, followed by U.S. congressional and Canadian parliamentary approvals.

Native American tribes that have been invited into the process as advisers, not as full partners despite their nation status, are organizing growing opposition. It is unclear whether their lack of inclusion will seriously complicate the process.

All of this means that the issue is a very big deal, that Waukesha will be site of the next battle over a diversion of water from a Great Lake, and all of that puts Doyle in a very key position.

There are some indicators about how the issue could be framed.

Doyle and Republican legislative leaders cooperated on passing the Jobs Creation Act in 2004. The bill removed several layers of state environmental review for projects near bodies of water.

Both parties got what they wanted: positive identification with a jobs and economic development agenda. Doyle managed to push his Grow Wisconsin agenda and was not boxed into a narrowly defined, pro-environmental stance that his opponents could label as anti-jobs.

If the water diversion issue is labeled simply as another purely economic issue -- the way a Scott Walker for governor campaign likely would frame it -- it's conceivable Doyle might be inclined to help Waukesha get the support it wants.

A reality for Doyle is that some other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces, plus a southeastern Wisconsin environmental movement already inflamed by the region's freeway-expansion binge, would bring strong pro-conservation, anti-diversion pressure to all the Great Lakes governors, and certainly to Doyle, to deny the request -- or at the least to require Waukesha to implement and demonstrate conservation measures.

The good thing for Doyle, and more importantly for the conservation ethic that is needed to protect the basin Great Lakes basin, is that Waukesha's request is based on weak politics and porous credibility: the city has not been conserving, it continues to over-consume, it hurts its case by saying it would not return water to the basin, and it appears indifferent at best to the precedent its diversion would set.

No one wants to see Great Lakes water piped to green up lawns in Las Vegas, but that is the risk that Waukesha alone seems comfortable taking.

In short, its request is laden with a breath-taking sense of entitlement, and begs to be shot down.

Those points will not be lost on the other Great Lakes states, one of which could do Doyle an election-year favor by putting the proposal out its misery without Doyle being forced to play the heavy.

For Doyle, and for Wisconsin, the entire matter could be framed as a plus.

He could use his leadership position to articulate a vision that water conservation should be a top priority for the Great Lakes states. The eight U.S. Great Lakes governors and two Canadian provincial premiers recently laid out a plan for ridding the lakes of pollutants and invasive plants and fish: water conservation goes hand-in-hand.

Doyle, in the Wisconsin tradition of Gaylord Nelson and Aldo Leopold and John Muir, has the opportunity to be the champion. He has a rich tradition of conservation available as a platform. It is a history that many other states do not have.

It is part of what makes Wisconsin special: it is a legacy that he can embrace.

It's as Wisconsin as cheese curds, the Progressive Party and the Green Bay Packers Sweep.

Doyle could direct his administration to make water conservation the underpinning of an updated Wisconsin Idea. He could direct incentives to communities, industries and development projects that agree to link water conservation and job creation, thus doing a good thing for Wisconsin's environment, for the state's economy, and for Wisconsin's long love affair with Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and all the state's waters.

There are good models centered on the wise use of water that make these connections. Look no farther than the public-private partnership in Milwaukee's Menomonee River Valley, where jobs AND restored land AND clean water AND recreation AND a raised quality of life are replacing blight and pollution and unemployment.

The solution doesn't have to be water slides and subdivisions on farm fields.

Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy-maker who formerly advised ex-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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