Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Stall Waukesha Drinking Water Project

Waukesha needs access to one acre of county land. Committee votes to delay this.

By - Dec 8th, 2022 10:55 am
Running Tap Water. Image by Steve Johnson (Public Domain).

Running Tap Water. Photo by Steve Johnson (Public Domain).

Members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors have found themselves in a position to delay a huge, $300 million drinking water project for the City of Waukesha, by which it would divert and use water from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha has had trouble with its drinking water for decades as the aquifer that supplied the city’s drinking water was depleted and the concentration of radium, a radioactive metal, in the water supply increased. The city has been under a consent decree since 2003 with the U.S. Department of Justice to meet the Environmental Protection Agency‘s standards for radium. In 2016, the diversion was approved by the eight state governors and two Canadian premiers that make up the council for the Great Lakes Compact. In 2017 Waukesha signed a deal with the City of Milwaukee to pay for access to Lake Michigan water.

This is being done via the Waukesha Great Lakes Water Supply Project, a massive infrastructure project which is planned to be operational by September 2023. In February this year, Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said the project was “on time and on budget.” Now county supervisors are involved.

Waukesha is seeking an easement from Milwaukee County for approximately one acre of land running along W. Ryan Road between S. 60th and S. 68th streets in Franklin. The easement would give Waukesha permission to put a section of underground pipeline on land owned by the county. This land is considered parkland, and therefore under the purview of the board. The pipe would be carrying treated effluent to its discharge point in the Root River.

Waukesha didn’t want to use Milwaukee County-owned land, said Daniel Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, but this section of the right of way was blocked by Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) infrastructure. “We have run out of options, and it’s either the north side or the south side [of Ryan Road],” he said.

Waukesha would pay the county $100,000 for this easement, which would be in effect for 100 years. That timeframe is roughly the lifespan of the infrastructure that would be installed, Duchniak said. The pipeline will be installed with a drilling technique that doesn’t disturb the surface for virtually the entire length of the pipe.

Erica Goblet, contracts manager for Milwaukee County Parks, frequently works on utility easements for county parks. She assured supervisors, “as far as utility easements go, this isn’t unusual.” In fact, the typical appraisal for land like this is $40,000, and given that the infrastructure would be underground, she said. “There’s little impact on parkland, it’s a deep pipeline,” she said. Utility easements are frequently granted permanently by the county board, she said, to companies like We Energies.

The parks department’s chief concern, Goblet said, was the return of water to the Root River. That’s why it negotiated the $100,000 payment for the easement, which will be put into a trust for the department’s Natural Areas Team, explained Jeremy Lucas, parks director of administration and planning. Most utility easements between the county and other municipalities that parks deal with were granted more than 50 years ago for $1, Lucas said.

Under the agreement, Goblet said, Waukesha would have to pay to mitigate any damages caused by the infrastructure, and would have to pay a “right-of-entry fee” to the parks department any time they came onto the parkland.

Waukesha will spend $100,000 a year monitoring and testing the Root River for at least the first 10 years, Duchniak said. At which point it will work with the Department of Natural Resources on what monitoring is necessary going forward, he said. “I can assure you that the return flow volume and quality was one of the most dominant issues throughout the approval process.”

But a majority of supervisors on the board’s parks committee didn’t like the idea of granting a 100-year easement and voted to pause approval of the project. The proposal will still go to the full board for a vote, but with a recommendation from the committee that it be rejected.

The chair, Sup. Sheldon Wasserman even mused about offering Waukesha a 25-year easement for $25,000 instead, citing annual inflation. Wasserman was joined by Supervisors Steven Shea and Juan Miguel Martinez in voting against the deal. Shea said he shared Wasserman’s concerns: “100 years is a very long time.”

In October, Wasserman sought board approval to grant residents on N. Wahl Avenue in his district unique access to a bluff in Lake Park to remove vegetation. Shea voted in favor of it. Had it gone forward, the access would have been granted “in perpetuity.

Waukesha is under a deadline from the federal DOJ to meet clean drinking water standards by September 2023, Duchniak told the committee. A contractor is ready to do the work, he said, and every month it’s delayed increases the possibility that Waukesha does not meet the deadline.

Sup. Steve Taylor, the lone supervisor to vote against stalling the approval, chastised his colleagues, noting the project involved “serious stuff” specifically, “the health and safety of another municipality in another county,” and that they were getting in the way of a complicated utility project that involved international cooperation with officials in Canada and every level of government in the U.S.

Seriously, Milwaukee County is going to be the one to mess this up?”

Categories: MKE County, Politics, Weekly

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