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Obscure agency has key water role

How and when annex 2001 eventually allows water to be diverted out of the Great
Lakes basin will be heavily influenced by an unelected Wisconsin planning agency
that is hardly a household name across the region.
That agency is SEWRPC —
the seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission — pronounced
"sewerpac," an unfortunately confusing acronym, because SEWRPC is neither
a political action committee nor waste treatment body.

SEWRPC’s offices are
tucked away in an industrial park in Waukesha County, a fast-growing region west
of Milwaukee County that is partially in and partially out of the Great Lakes
basin.

That means that Waukesha County is a "straddling county"
under the annex’s basin-boundary-bending definition, so its largest municipality,
the city of Waukesha, is eligible to apply for a diversion under terms of the
annex.

SEWRPC is governed by a 21-member board, with three commissioners
appointed from each of the seven counties, regardless of population.

Thirsty
for clean Lake Michigan water, Waukesha County pressed SEWRPC to launch in 2005
a 30-month regional water-supply study; many observers see the study’s recommendations
likely to bless out-of-basin diversions as appropriate and desirable as more Waukesha
farmland is converted to housing and commercial development.

Another application

One
early indicator: SEWRPC hired the Waukesha consulting and engineering firm of
Ruekert/Mielke to handle much of the study’s structure and research.

The
same firm and its key personnel advising on the SEWRPC study also prepared the
controversial Lake Michigan-diversion application for the city of New Berlin,
another water-hungry Waukesha County community.

That application, prepared
quietly, and then forwarded to the Great Lakes states for review by the Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources, was blocked – – for now – – by Michigan Gov.
Jennifer Granholm in June.

SEWRPC has paved the way for much of the region’s
sprawl, literally: The agency recently recommended $6.5 billion in state spending
on freeway modernization and expansion, including adding new lanes across Waukesha
County – – the very area where overdevelopment has contributed to the county’s
water problems.

Though it says it will examine conservation and other alternatives,
SEWRPC will probably endorse out-of-basin diversions as a key element for regional
development.

And that could open the floodgates across the Great Lakes
basin far beyond the borders of one Wisconsin seven-county region, and a single
unelected commission.

Jim Rowan lives in Milwaukee where he writes freelance
for several Wisconsin publications and Web sites, and advises Wisconsin environmental
groups on media strategies for land-use, transportation and water issues.

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