The enthusiastic embrace of regional cooperation by Southeastern Wisconsin's business and political elites has been as surprising as it was abrupt. Various explanations have been offered to explain this radical departure from generations of suburban/urban competition.
Now we know it was in the water!
To be precise it is the radium in Waukesha's water. Radium is carcinogenic so New Berlin and much of Waukesha want to get their hands on Lake Michigan's clean water.
If anyone doubted this, New Berlin Mayor Jack Chiovater's response to a recent Department of Natural Resource (DNR) ruling that New Berlin can begin negotiating with Milwaukee over access to Lake Michigan Water should erase all doubts. In reaction to the DNR's letter the Mayor said: "We applaud the DNR's decision today and look forward to working in the spirit of regional cooperation with Milwaukee."
The DNR letter came only a week after the Journal Sentinel editorial board had urged the department to support the New Berlin’s request to divert Lake Michigan water outside the Great Lakes Basin to meet its water needs.
Jim Rowen who has posted a wonderful series of articles on his blog about the Great Lakes, which constitute one sixth of the world’s fresh water supply, points out that this is not the DNR’s decision to make. Milwaukee cannot send water west of the subcontinental divide under current federal policy.
Before any Lake Michigan water is diverted the Wisconsin legislature needs to approve legislation supporting the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, which clarifies the criteria for diverting water outside the basin. Among the proposed criteria is that communities requesting diversion must demonstrate that they are maximizing water conservation efforts and that they will return the water to the lake watershed.
The DNR letter doesn't change this reality.
The Compact's conservation standards present a problem for New Berlin since the city's Board of Appeals voted 4 to 1 to uphold a Plan Commission's approval of a new $55 million, 7 story, 405 room hotel and water park!
That’s right. I am not kidding you- a community that lacks an adequate supply of clean water recently approved a commercial development anchored by a water park.
Milwaukee’s west side alderman, Michael Murphy, recognized the absurdity of New Berlin's action saying: ”This project is exactly what we don’t need - Lake Michigan water diverted for-commercial entertainment usage that will add to sprawl that has gone unchecked in Waukesha County for years.”
Similar questions should be raised about the Pabst Farms 184 acre upscale regional shopping mall which includes 2 hotels and other housing and commercial developments in western Waukesha and Kenosha County.
Before we back the trucks up to Lake Michigan and begin hauling water out of the Great Lakes Basin we also need to ask who will pay for the infrastructure to send water to New Berlin and other water hungry communities, treat it and return it to the Lake. Currently, Milwaukee's water pipes are undersized and it lacks sufficient pumps to handle the additional demand.
The Journal treats this as a minor annoyance when it writes: "New Berlin is willing to help pay the capital costs....”
If New Berlin is only helping, who are they helping cover the costs estimated at between $4 and $8 million?
Does the Journal expect the residents of Milwaukee to subsidize New Berlin's diversion of Lake Michigan water?
For decades the same leaders who have now drunk the regional cooperation Kool Aid rejected Milwaukee's requests to work together to address problems like high poverty rates, racial segregation, inadequate school funding, deindustrialization, the shortage of low and moderate income housing and the need for a modern, comprehensive mass transit system.
As development moved west, critics of sprawl were told that developers were simply responding to the housing preferences of homeowners who preferred a suburban lifestyle. People were voting with their dollars and the market was responding. When Milwaukee asked for help, suburban leaders response was "tough luck." Milwaukee's problems were the city's alone.
The real costs of Southeastern Wisconsin's suburban development were obscured during its early stages. Taxes were initially much much lower because new suburban developments require less infrastructure and social service investment than a mature, urban area like Milwaukee. Property values are also much higher. Sometimes, as in the case of the $20 million interchange needed for the Pabst Farms regional mall, developers ignored or hid the costs until after their project was approved.
But once a critical mass of population, housing and commercial development occurs, infrastructure costs including new roads, new schools and access to clean drinking water, as well as the need for expanded services such as police and fire protection, emerge.
Now that the real costs of sprawl are coming home to roost in the form of radium in Waukesha's water, is the plan, in the words of former Governor Thompson, "to stick it to Milwaukee" one more time?
Milwaukee borders one of the world's most valuable water resources. Our elected officials and citizenry must be responsible stewards of this resource. The first step is getting the legislature to sign the Great Lakes Compact. New Berlin's water park can wait!