Speaking of Water: Democracy in Action

Nobody said democracy would be easy. Just ask any of the thousands of people who have been making their opinions known on the matter of the Waukesha, Wisconsin’s application to divert roughly 10 million gallons/day of Lake Michigan water. The city has been working on this application for as long as I’ve been in Wisconsin (more than fifteen years), and the public hasn’t had much of a rest for that entire time.

My position on this dilemma is no secret: I think that building a 20-mile, $200 million (or more) pipeline to ship water over the Great Lakes divide out to Waukesha, and then return the treated effluent back to the basin via the Root River is short-sighted, and will leave Waukesha’s citizens beholden to an expensive, inflexible, energy-hogging infrastructure while the rest of the world is able to respond to new innovations coming down the pike. On February 16th I, and one hundred or so others, had the chance to again state my opinion, this time to a new audience: The Great Lakes Compact Council. Previous avenues for input have all been within state, so the Council’s meeting in Waukesha was the first time to publicly make statements to representatives of all eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces.

While most of the people present were from Wisconsin, and a great number of those were from Waukesha, there were some representatives that came long distances to speak. There were many Waukesha residents, city employees, and elected officials who spoke in favor of the diversion, and many (including some from the Town of Waukesha, which the City of Waukesha is pulling into its application) who opposed. Among the opposition there were many who focused on whether or not the “service area” as defined in the application met the requirements of the Compact. This matter seems to be quite the Achilles Heel for Waukesha, and will undoubtedly be heavily scrutinized by lawyers throughout the region.

I, however, was among a cadre of people who focused my three minutes on whether or not Waukesha had other reasonable “alternatives” for its water supply.  My comments went something like this:

Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on this precedent-setting application for Great Lakes Water.

I am Lynn Broaddus, president of Broadview Collaborative, Inc., a firm which focuses on water challenges for the region, and for the country as a whole. My professional experience includes six years at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread leading a high-profile national conversation on water, a conversation that began in part because of the issues raised during the deliberations that lead to the Compact’s ratification.

My comments today focus on Waukesha’s alternatives, and the alternatives analysis that was a required part of the city’s application for Great Lakes water. I believe that the alternatives analysis is incomplete and out of date, and does not begin to reflect the options available to Waukesha for providing safe and healthy water for its residents.

Waukesha’s alternatives analysis was done in 2002, and only seriously examined additional wells as options for new water sources. While time stands still with the analysis and options presented, the water technology revolution has been moving forward. Others this evening have discussed options for radium removal, which deserves examination. In addition, water re-use should be on the table. Water re-use is not just for astronauts any more. It is being used by more and more cities, sometimes at the building scale and sometimes for the city as a whole. Most of those cities are clustered in California and Texas, but there’s no reason why the same technologies can’t be applied here in the Great Lakes region. Today there are companies making turnkey, stand-alone units that allow homes to recycle their greywater for lawn watering and toilet flushing. Rainwater harvest, using technology to capture rainwater at the building scale and treat it and use it on-site, is being used in Austin, TX and other parts of the country to supply water when groundwater becomes scarce. These are but some of the options that merit consideration.

I hope that you will push back on the submitted alternatives and ask yourself whether they meet your expectations. Especially given that our region is trying to brand itself as a center for water innovation and leadership, surely we deserve an up-to-date and forward-thinking analysis of the options.

Additionally, I question the demand projections presented by Waukesha. Given that their demand has been declining in response to conservation efforts and new design standards, mirroring trends that we are seeing nationally (and expect to continue seeing), Waukesha’s demand projections defy common sense. It would be a travesty for the ratepayers of Waukesha to be stuck paying for a $200 million pipeline that is over-sized and outdated before its even completed.

To solve Waukesha’s water challenges with pipelines and pumps is old school. We can do better. Waukesha’s citizens need, and deserve, a solution that will allow them the flexibility to thrive through the 21st Century rather than be mired in an expensive and inflexible solution based on 100-year old technology.

One of the people who was there from beginning to end was WUWM’s environmental reporter Susan Bence. She reported on the hearing the next morning as the first segment on the program Lake Effect. You can hear her piece, and portions of many of the speakers from both sides (including me), on the station’s website.

2 Comments on “Speaking of Water: Democracy in Action

  1. Hello, I am a janitor and notice people throwing half full starbucks coffees in the trash, in a plastic cup. which goes in the landfill. if all people across of America does this, this will result in many gallons of water lost in the landfill.


    • Dana – Thanks for your input. As you might see, I incorporated your idea into my Earth Day blog. Thank you for your idea AND for taking the next step of sharing it. That’s the way change happens.


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