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Waukesha water deal tied to development

By Sean Ryan

Planners are going by instinct and best guesses as they try to chart the effect water prices will have on development and population trends in Waukesha.

The city has two options: Strike a deal to get its water from Lake Michigan or drill wells to tap into groundwater supplies.

According to Waukesha estimates, it would cost $164 million to build the infrastructure needed to draw from Lake Michigan, but $177 million to develop new groundwater wells. The groundwater systems also would cost more to maintain — $7.1 million a year compared with $6.2 million for Lake Michigan water.

As area planners try to determine how Lake Michigan water will affect Waukesha’s growth, they’re struggling with the question of whether higher rates for groundwater will drive people out of the city, said Willie Wade, Milwaukee alderman and a member of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission Environmental Justice Task Force, which is studying the topic.

The commission is drafting a regional water-use plan with a recommendation on the best water source for Waukesha.

“Are they going to say, ‘That’s worth it to me,’” Wade said. “Or are they going to move out of Waukesha?”

That is hard to determine, said Kate Madison, policy analyst for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, which is studying for SEWRPC water’s effect on development. Population growth in Waukesha and other communities is based on the idea that long-term plans will be fully realized, she said, but ratepayers’ decisions based on the price of water cannot be predicted.

Between 1960 and 2000, Milwaukee lost 144,368 people as the cities around it grew, according to the SEWRPC draft report. Madison’s forecast, which is based on SEWRPC data, predicts 23,500 more people will move into the area served by the Waukesha Water Utility between 2000 and 2035, for a total of 88,500 people.

According to the study, 13,800 more people would move into the Milwaukee service area in the same time frame, for a total of 664,550.

The question is: Would the trends reverse if Waukesha does not get lake water, said Lynnette McNeely, a member of the Environmental Justice Task Force. In calling for more study between the cost of lake water and other sources, she said planners need to know whether the different water sources could result in more people moving back to Milwaukee.

“Whenever you create an infrastructure that is too expensive,” she said, “it has an impact on low-income people.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which must approve Waukesha’s plan to use Lake Michigan water, will consider the effect the water would have on development in the region, said James Pardee, Wisconsin DNR Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act coordinator. The department Friday was to release a letter outlining what it will study as it drafts an environmental impact statement for the project, he said.

“We have not provided a schedule at this point,” he said about completing the EIS, “because we are still waiting for the city to provide its application.”

Wade said the higher construction and maintenance costs of groundwater will affect development in Waukesha.

“They understand they have issues,” he said. “In my mind,  the difference is: It comes down to do you have enough people in that area right now where you can charge the difference in the amount if they don’t use Lake Michigan water.”

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