Protecting Milwaukee’s Vital Interests

Alderman Bauman has been in forefront of the debate over the diversion of Lake Michigan Water to the City of Waukesha

The Great Lakes are the largest concentration of fresh water in the world. It is a tremendous resource that has and will continue to provide Milwaukee citizens and businesses with a nearly inexhaustible supply of fresh water at very reasonable cost.

The value of this resource is not lost on communities that do not have access to Great Lakes water. For this reason, the seven states and two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes have entered into the Great Lakes Compact which, among other things, governs the circumstances under which great lakes water can be diverted outside of the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes basin is the geographic land area that drains into the Great Lakes. 

The City of Waukesha, which lies outside of the Great Lakes Basin, has filed an application with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to divert up to 10.5 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan to replace their current water supply which is increasingly subject to radiation contamination and diminishing capacity. Basically, growth and development in Waukesha County has led to a shortage of the type of high quality fresh water that Milwaukee citizens and businesses take for granted. 

Initially, the City of Waukesha wanted to purchase Lake Michigan water from the Milwaukee Water Works because of the quality of Milwaukee water and the fact that a connection with Milwaukee would be less costly than a connection with the Oak Creek, South Milwaukee or Racine water utilities. Currently, Milwaukee supplies water to several suburban communities but none of these communities lie entirely outside the Great Lakes Basin like the City of Waukesha. 

The decision to sell water to the City of Waukesha raised major policy questions since there is no doubt that Milwaukee water would enable the City of Waukesha and surrounding areas to accelerate their development and growth at the expense of Milwaukee. 

Milwaukee has lost population and jobs for last 50 years while Waukesha County in general and the City of Waukesha in particular has seen population and job growth. This phenomenon has led to increasing concentrations of poverty in Milwaukee, increased levels of segregation in the metropolitan area, and the “worker-job mismatch” which refers to the situation where large numbers of unemployed or underemployed persons who live in the city cannot access areas of suburban job growth because there is virtually no public transportation connecting Milwaukee neighborhoods and these Waukesha County communities. It could be argued that selling water to the City of Waukesha would be tantamount to Milwaukee providing the nails for its own coffin. 

On the other hand, the Milwaukee Water Works has excess capacity and could use the additional water sale revenue and the City of Milwaukee is committed to regional cooperation and selling water to the City of Waukesha would promote economic development and growth within Southeastern Wisconsin. However, regional cooperation should be a two-way street: if Milwaukee is expected to assist suburban communities in dealing with their challenges such as a shortage of fresh water; suburban communities should be expected to assist Milwaukee in dealing with its challenges such as poverty. 

Anticipating these policy issues, Alderman Bauman authored legislation (file #080457 adopted by the Common Council on July 30, 2008) that sets forth the process under which Milwaukee will consider water sales to suburban communities and sets forth the minimum requirements of any potential water service agreement. 

The first part of the process involves information gathering by various city departments. This data ranges from technical issues such as whether the Water Works has the capacity to provide the water to data on public transportation service and the availability of affordable housing in the suburban community. In particular, Milwaukee’s Department of City Development must report on whether the sale of city water to a suburban community will negatively impact Milwaukee’s economic development. In addition, the suburban community seeking water must also provide reports on their housing polices, public transportation policies and land use planning. 

Once all this data is assembled the Common Council will decide whether selling water to the suburban community is in the best interests of Milwaukee. 

The second portion of the legislation provides that the suburban community must agree to a non-compete provision which prohibits the suburban community from luring Milwaukee businesses and an “economic compensation provision” that represents a payment to Milwaukee, in addition to the standard water rates, that reflects the opportunity cost to Milwaukee from the sale of water to the suburban community. 

Alderman Bauman also authored legislation to initiate negotiations with the City of Waukesha regarding a water sale agreement. The information required by the Water Sale Policy legislation was assembled and public hearings were held before the Public Works Committee chaired by Alderman Bauman. The Council ultimately agreed to enter into such negotiations but with a major caveat: namely that the City of Milwaukee would only negotiate over selling water to the City of Waukesha’s existing water utility service area rather than a much larger proposed service area that encompassed townships and other undeveloped areas. Alderman Bauman and the Common Council felt that supplying water to this much larger service area would promote urban sprawl and adversely affect Milwaukee’s economic development efforts. 

The City of Waukesha rejected Milwaukee’s overtures and decided to enter into a water sale agreement with the City of Oak Creek. 

The issue is not yet resolved. Recently the Wisconsin DNR gave tentative approval to the City of Waukesha’s water diversion application. Public hearings were held in August, 2015 and Alderman Bauman testified in opposition to the diversion application pointing out the same concerns about urban sprawl and economic justice that dominated the hearings before the Common Council several years earlier.

If the Wisconsin DNR gives final approval to the City of Waukesha diversion application, the application will be referred to the Great Lakes Compact for review. Compact approval will require the unanimous consent of all seven Great Lakes governors. Alderman Bauman will continue to advocate on behalf of the City of Milwaukee as the Great Lakes governors consider this application.