With Waukesha in water limbo, Barrett repeats offer

Oct. 12, 2012

Now that Waukesha's chosen water supplier, Oak Creek, is unexpectedly delaying the signing of a 50-year deal, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is reminding Waukesha officials of his willingness to negotiate selling them the water they need - if they agree to his terms.

In a letter to Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima and former Common Council President Paul Ybarra, Barrett does not back off from his past demand that no lake water would be distributed beyond Waukesha's current service area. The area essentially ends at the city's borders, with the exception of 112 or so Town of Waukesha property owners that have hooked up to municipal water over the years after experiencing problems with their wells.

Waukesha is asking the eight Great Lakes states to approve diverting Lake Michigan water inland for their residents and businesses so the city can stop using deep wells drawing radium-contaminated water from a sandstone aquifer. Each state must approve the request, under terms of a Great Lakes protection compact.

Barrett's strategy is to contain Waukesha's future growth by preventing distribution of lake water to a future water service area designated by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The future area includes portions of the City of Pewaukee and towns of Delafield, Genesee and Waukesha.

Waukesha thought it had a supplier willing to serve the entire future area. On Oct. 2, both the Oak Creek and Waukesha common councils approved a water agreement.

The next day, Oak Creek Water & Sewer Utility General Manager Steve Yttri refused to carry out the agreement. His unexpected roadblock was set up after the state Public Service Commission significantly reduced wholesale water charges Oak Creek could impose on other municipal customers in an unrelated rate case.

Yttri does not want Oak Creek customers to subsidize residents of other communities so he does not want to add another wholesale municipality with Waukesha. Oak Creek has filed a lawsuit against the PSC to overturn the order.

Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak said Friday he was discussing Barrett's letter with other officials.

"At this time, our agreement with Oak Creek requires us to negotiate exclusively with Oak Creek," he said in explaining why he would not be calling Barrett on Friday.

There are substantial financial benefits to Oak Creek in the deal, specifically new revenue that would allow Oak Creek to lower rates paid by its residents as much as 25%, Duchniak said.

"We expect the Oak Creek utility to sign the letter of intent in the near future," he said. "Until that point, we're going to honor the agreement."

No deadline - yet

Duchniak did not set a deadline for Oak Creek to make good on the deal. He did say the Waukesha Common Council will discuss Oak Creek's delay at a regular meeting Tuesday.

Even if Waukesha decides not to wait indefinitely for Oak Creek to challenge the PSC order, that does not mean that Waukesha would accept Barrett's terms.

Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp rejected Barrett's approach in August when she told him the Department of Natural Resources will require any municipality selling Lake Michigan water to Waukesha to supply its entire future water service area and not just the city.

In a letter to Barrett, Stepp said: "The Department cannot allow a diversion application to proceed with a water supplier that categorically refuses to serve jurisdictions within the service area."

The DNR requested a portion of the Town of Genesee be included in the future area because bacterial contamination from failing septic systems already poses problems for wells there.

A slice of the City of Pewaukee is included based on a boundary agreement.

These are examples of regional cooperation at the heart of water service area planning, according to DNR officials. Should property owners in the towns of Delafield and Waukesha encounter problems with wells, the larger future water service area gives them access to municipal water.

Barrett ignores Stepp's views in his new letter and restates an old recommendation that Waukesha simply ask SEWRPC to lop off the other communities from a future water service area.

Why? The larger service area does not need lake water now, Barrett said Friday.

He does not believe all the other Great Lakes states will approve diverting lake water to the larger future area without a demonstration that there are no other adequate supplies of drinking water for those neighboring communities.

Barrett on Friday did not indicate a willingness to compromise or accept any portion of the designated future water supply area. One compromise appears to be portions of the Town of Genesee where there are known well contamination problems.

Barrett contends that Waukesha's request for Great Lakes water could be vetoed by one of the eight states on this issue, so the city could save itself time and effort by accepting Milwaukee's terms.

"I'm convinced the other Great Lakes governors won't let this skate by," he said. Barrett acknowledged he has not talked directly with the other governors about this issue in coming to that judgment.

Stepp's August letter to Barrett addressed the issue.

"Regional systems for water delivery and management are commonly used throughout the Great Lakes basin," Stepp says in the letter. "The department has received no indication from other Great Lakes states or provinces that a proposed diversion would be jeopardized by including a cost-effective proposal for a regional system for public water supply."

Letter on JSOnline

Read Tom Barrett's letter at jsonline.com/waukesha.

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