22.6.05

THE WATER WAR SPREADS. Thickly settled parts of Illinois and Wisconsin are close enough to Lake Michigan to benefit by the cooling easterly breezes, but when it comes to using the lake water, many of those places might as well be in the Mojave Desert. The Xoff (Christoff, for newbies, not cutoff) Files have discovered a particularly nasty spat bubbling in the yuppified southwest suburbs of Milwaukee. By international treaty, water may be piped from the Great Lakes only to locations in the Great Lakes watershed. The subcontinental divide, west of which water goes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, runs very close to Lake Michigan (the Des Plaines River connects to the Mississippi, and in the Milwaukee area the subcontinental divide is a pronounced ridge just west of Sunny Slope Road offering good views of downtown. Some Milwaukee suburbs (this is probably true of some of the Chicago suburbs) straddle the divide, and here is where the treaty revision fun begins.
Under the proposed agreement, all of the City of New Berlin, because the Great Lakes basin boundary literally runs across that city, will be considered in the basin as a so-called 'straddling' community. This is new language added by the agreement's drafters.If adopted by all the governing bodies, New Berlin would be able to obtain Lake Michigan water without a formal diversion procedure, and would only require the approval of the state of Wisconsin for such a withdrawal.The City of Milwaukee currently sells Lake Michigan water to the City of New Berlin for use in its eastern, in-basin portion.
If you're prepared to grant the idea of a straddling community, why not a straddling county?
The drafters have created another new category -- straddling COUNTIES -- whose municipalities are eligible to apply for exceptions from the no-diversion-outside-the-basin rule because some of their county is in the basin, and some of the county is outside. Eastern Waukesha County makes the entire county a straddling county under this definition, so municipalities in Waukesha County can apply for diversions even if, like the City of Waukesha, the applicant municipality lies outside the basin.
The post goes on to note a number of stipulations about conservation and return of water to the basin from which it was drawn in proportion to use, although, curiously, the role of prices as incentives to conserve never comes up. Not surprisingly, the policy positions of local newspapers, which may or may not be representative of local preferences, is literally divided. The Waukesha Freeman, located west of the divide in what has at times been the fastest-growing suburban county in the U.S., wants to dip its straw.
When cooler heads are allowed to analyze this concept, it will certainly come to the surface that allowing the hookup to Lake Michigan is preferable to continuing to drain down the underlying water supplies in the shallow and deep aquifers through continued well digging.
Well, yes, and many people will tell you that a plastic pig is preferable to a Miata, but again oughtn't we talk about the prices at which people act on their preferences?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which serves readers on both sides of the subcontinental divide, considers the possibility that prices provide information.

This is not a question of preventing people from living where they want to live. Want to live on a mountaintop or on the side of cliff? Go ahead. Just don't expect the rest of us to pay for trucking your building materials to the top of the mountain or to rebuild the place when it slides off the cliff.

Communities in Waukesha County have seen an explosion of growth because the county is a great place to live. Good schools, low crime, lovely lakes and streams, lots of open space.

But as that space fills up, there is more pressure on the landscape, including the water table, which apparently is being drained faster than the rains can replenish it. Which means that residents are going to have to start paying the real costs of all that development.

This is not to say that water diversions should be barred out of hand. Keeping the communities of Waukesha County thriving is essential to the economic success of the entire region. A deal involving diversion is certainly possible - Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley has already raised some intriguing possibilities - as long as the result doesn't adversely affect the Great Lakes or the people on its shores.

Adversely affect? Getting up early adversely affects me. But I'm well paid for doing so. (And don't get me started on federal disaster relief, this post is long enough already.)

The water war, however, is causing remoter precincts to take sides. Here's the Green Bay Press-Gazette take.

Forget it.

It all sounds too much like a slippery slope to faraway states with water shortages potentially exploiting the lakes.

Until now, only communities in the basin — the area where water naturally drains to the lakes — were allowed to tap them for their water supply. Green Bay gets its water from Lake Michigan, and the suburban Central Brown County Water Authority plans to do the same next year when its pipeline is completed to Manitowoc.

The draft agreement among governors of the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces would bend the existing rules to let communities straddling the basin tap in as well.

Fast growing Waukesha County west of Milwaukee is one of them. Parts of it are inside the basin, but the city of Waukesha is not. Its water flows to the Mississippi River.

Apparently oblivious to the fact that the available groundwater supply had its limits, the city allowed growth to exceed the water supply and now finds itself in a bind. So, it's making its case for lake water — and fretting about the cost of infrastructure if it has to return it to the lake.

Waukesha is in the same spot that some Central Brown County Water Authority communities found themselves — with limited or poor-quality groundwater and the need to find a new supply. But, here, they have the good fortune of being solidly in the basin.

Here we have the assertion that growth exceeds supply, without any discussion of pricing. These writers, at least, are honest enough to admit that their situation is different; in fact, the Great Lakes basin extends to at least the Wolf River, well west of Green Bay. Again, one has to ask about the pricing: there is plenty of hardscrabble farmland west of Green Bay and east of the Wolf that might have potential for subdivisions.

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