Waukesha's water supply, which comes from a deep aquifer, is contaminated with a high level of radium. As a result, the city has been working to get approval for a Lake Michigan diversion.
It's a long, complex process involving approval from the Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes governors, who have veto power as part of the Great Lakes Compact.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Common Council's Public Works Committee recommended to the full council an amended negotiation agreement.
Under the recommendation, the City of Milwaukee would provide water only to the City of Waukesha proper, and not the surrounding areas included in the water service area. These include the City of Pewaukee, the Town of Waukesha, the Town of Genesee, and the City of Delafield.
Ald. Bob Bauman said the areas around the City of Waukesha are largely undeveloped and their water needs would continue growing after the agreement.
"We're basically giving them the nails for our own coffin," Bauman said. "We are facilitating sprawled development."
But Waukesha Utility Manager Dan Duchniak said 85 percent of the water service area is developed or in environmental corridors. And the water use figures submitted were for the total future use once the areas are at full use.
At the Public Works committee meeting, Mayor Tom Barrett made a statement supporting negotiations with the City of Waukesha. But he expressed concern about providing water to communities surrounding the city proper who have not come forward to request water and have not demonstrated any need for Lake Michigan water.
Since any one of the seven Great Lakes Governors could veto the sale if they don't feel it meets the Great Lakes Compact requirements, including the surrounding jurisdictions could kill the whole deal.
"We need these issues clarified before we can enter a negotiation that includes the expanded service area," Barrett said. "If the City of Milwaukee is to enter into negotiations this important, and I believe they are, all potential parties to the sale should be at the table."
But it may not be possible to separate the City of Waukesha from the full water service area, since it is defined by the Department of Natural Resources.
According to the Great Lakes Compact law, passed in 2007, "In approving a water supply plan, DNR must specify a water supply service area for each system making a withdrawal covered by the plan, but it may not limit these areas based upon jurisdictional boundaries, except to prevent the transfer or diversion of waters of the Great Lakes basin into a county that lies entirely outside the Great Lakes basin."
Under the Great Lakes Compact, cities that are located outside the Great Lakes basin but within counties that straddle the subcontinental divide can apply to use Great Lakes water. The City of Waukesha is outside the basin, but Waukesha County straddles the divide.
Waukesha Utility Manager Dan Duchniak was at the committee meeting but was not afforded the chance to speak publicly about the negotiations.
He said the City of Milwaukee has no power to limit the water supply service area defined by the DNR, so the new plan wouldn't work.
"It's a non-starter for us," Duchniak said. "Milwaukee is concerned with an issue that (neither) we nor they have any control over from a statutory perspective."
He said Milwaukee is doing its taxpayers a disservice by stalling negotiations with Waukesha, since the agreement would bring about $3 million in to Milwaukee Water Works.
Bauman said the estimated income from the water sale would go to the Water Works, and couldn't be used elsewhere by the city.
"Regardless of what the number ends up being, the profit goes to the Water Works, not the city," Bauman said. However, the water works is the publicly owned utility of the City of Milwaukee.
Waukesha will need to find water somewhere soon—the city faces a June 2018 deadline to comply with federal radium standards. Construction is expected to take five years, and the city will need approval from the DNR and Great Lakes Governors before it can move forward with a water plan.
The Milwaukee Common Council will make a final decision on approval of the Public Works Committee plan on July 6.
"Once that action is taken, the city would assemble its negotiating team and basically wait for Waukesha to show up, and maybe they won't," Bauman said. "Sometimes you just have to walk away if the other side can't meet your terms. We're not willing to deal with the City of Waukesha as the agent for all of these towns."
Molly Newman is a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee.