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Letter from 3 mayors questions Waukesha water bid

March 7, 2012

The mayors of Milwaukee, Oak Creek and Racine on Wednesday unexpectedly questioned whether Waukesha needs to buy Lake Michigan water from one of their lakeshore cities.

Receiving a letter from the three mayors stunned Waukesha officials who have been in negotiations with Oak Creek and Racine for months and were waiting for Milwaukee to get involved.

Though Waukesha would be a large customer for one of the cities, paying up to $5 million dollars a year for treated drinking water from the lake, the mayors of the three cities targeted by Waukesha as possible suppliers do not appear to be eager sellers.

In the letter, the mayors ask Waukesha officials for more details on its request for Great Lakes water being reviewed by the state Department of Natural Resources. The text rehashes issues discussed at several public meetings in 2011 and reads more like a list of issues the mayors would want the DNR to pay close attention to.

The letter was signed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Oak Creek Mayor Al Foeckler and Racine Mayor John Dickert, but they agreed not to talk publicly about its contents Wednesday, according to Barrett staffers.

Waukesha wants to buy several million gallons of lake water a day from one of the three cities and pump it over the subcontinental divide so it can abandon a ground water supply tainted with unsafe levels of radium.

The timing of the joint letter is surprising since Oak Creek and Racine independently started negotiating selling water to Waukesha in August.

Yet the letter states: "We thought it opportune to raise several questions about your diversion request early in the process as we prepare for discussions over the possibility of selling water to the City of Waukesha."

There have been several months of productive discussions with Oak Creek and Racine, Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak said Wednesday.

Waukesha recently hired a consultant to help it review possible pipeline routes from Oak Creek and Racine and facilities needed to deliver the water, such as pumping stations, in an attempt to make purchases of water from one of those cities more competitive with Milwaukee.

The lowest cost option, with an estimated construction price tag of $164 million, is buying water from Milwaukee and returning treated wastewater to Underwood Creek in Brookfield so that it could flow downstream to the Menomonee River and be returned to the lake.

Milwaukee is the less costly option because there is less distance between it and Waukesha both to pump drinking water and return treated wastewater.

"We're disappointed we haven't been able to talk with Milwaukee," said Duchniak, who was not aware of the letter until he was contacted by a reporter.

Barrett and his staff refused to discuss the letter Wednesday. Barrett wanted to give Waukesha officials a full day to consider the letter's content before discussing it publicly, said Jodie Tabak, a mayoral spokeswoman. Tabak said she was surprised the Journal Sentinel had the letter, which was sent to a reporter Wednesday by Waukesha's mayor, Jeff Scrima.

Patrick Curley, Barrett's chief of staff, said the three mayors who signed it had agreed not to discuss the letter until Waukesha officials had an opportunity to review their text. Barrett did not want to violate the trust of the Oak Creek and Racine mayors by discussing the letter Wednesday, according to Curley.

Waukesha Common Council President Paul Ybarra deferred comment to Scrima, but the mayor said in an email that he should not comment since the Common Council chose to exclude him from the city's negotiating team.

DNR review

In May 2010, Waukesha asked Wisconsin to approve a request to purchase up to an average of 10.9 million gallons a day of lake water. On July 1 of last year, the DNR determined the city's 3,000-page application was "sufficiently complete" for it to begin a detailed analysis required under a 2008 Great Lakes protection compact and state law.

The DNR has hired an independent consultant, Boldt Technical Services of Appleton, to analyze cost estimates provided by Waukesha in its application for everything from water supply alternatives to options for returning lake water to the lake, as required by the Great Lakes compact.

Even so, the mayors ask for cost estimates of alternative supplies and options for returning water to the lake.

All of the mayors' questions regarding Waukesha's plans to tap the lake are answered in the application and associated reports, according to Duchniak.

With Waukesha's water use declining for several consecutive years, how much of the requested lake water would serve current customers and how much would go to support demand from future expansion of the city, the letter asks. The mayors ask about the impact of water conservation measures in recent years on cutting residential and business use. They ask whether Waukesha will impose those same conservation measures on neighboring communities that might request its water in the future.

If Wisconsin and each of the other seven Great Lakes states do not approve Waukesha's request for Lake Michigan water, the mayors want to know what water sources Waukesha will use to serve its customers.

Written response coming

Duchniak said Waukesha will prepare a written response to the letter because the details the mayors seek are in the application.

Waukesha must comply with a court-ordered 2018 deadline for providing residents and businesses with water that does not exceed federal health protection standards for radium.

If the lake request is not approved by each of the eight Great Lakes states, the city still must provide residents with a radium-safe water supply, but all the alternatives are more costly that a Milwaukee connection, according to Duchniak.

The city's application states that putting radium filters on all of its deep wells drawing water from sandstone and developing more shallow wells to ensure an adequate supply would cost at least $189 million, or $25 million more than the Milwaukee option.

The Great Lakes compact generally prohibits diversions of water outside the Great Lakes basin, but there is one exception in the law. A community can ask for lake water if it is in a county straddling the divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Waukesha County straddles the line, so Waukesha can make the request.

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