Waukesha city officials say they want to meet with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to discuss the city’s application for Lake Michigan water — as long as no one else attends.
Paul Ybarra, Waukesha Common Council president, said the city canceled its Thursday meeting with DNR officials after learning members of the Wisconsin Compact Implementation Coalition, a group of local environmental organizations, also were invited to attend. Ybarra said the city should be able to discuss its efforts without an audience.
“We’re always happy to discuss the application,” he said, “but it doesn’t make sense to have a special interest group at a legal discussion.”
At least one Waukesha city officials argues the DNR was selective in its decision to allow the coalition to attend Thursday’s meeting.
“They arbitrarily picked out a specific special interest group, especially one that can be very antagonistic to our interests,” said Waukesha City Attorney Curt Meitz. “If you’ll allow one, then allow everybody that’s affected.”
Waukesha proposed using Lake Michigan water to comply with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruling that requires the city reduce radium levels in its water by June 2018. Under the Great Lakes Compact, the request requires governors from all eight states bordering the Great Lakes approve the transfer of water beyond the lakeshore.
The city has submitted its application twice, most recently in September, and failed to gain approval each time. Bruce Baker, administrator of the DNR water division, asked to meet with Waukesha officials to discuss what the state needs before the request can be processed.
Baker said the information sought from Waukesha would not have changed regardless who was in attendance, and the DNR sees no reason to prevent the public from attending.
“I can’t identify anything that would justify meeting in closed-door session,” Baker said. “I guess that’s something the city views differently, and that’s their prerogative.”
Dan Duchniak, Waukesha water utility general manager, refused to say what items in the public application the city considers legally sensitive. He said the city’s attorney advised it would not be in Waukesha’s best interest to meet with a third-party present.
The city would consider meeting DNR officials, Duchniak said, if some agreement is reached beforehand on what could be said in the public forum.
“There is already a public process in place that allows outside parties to comment,” Duchniak said. “Why should that process be changed for this application?”
The DNR routinely lets public groups attend such meetings, said Ezra Meyer, water resource specialist for Clean Wisconsin. Meyer said he had planned to observe Thursday’s meeting until Ybarra announced Waukesha would not attend.
“It’s a little puzzling, frankly,” Meyer said. “The city’s stance more or less is that a public body should be able to meet with another public body to discuss a public resource — but do all that in private.”
Duchniak said potential lawsuits stemming from the Great Lakes water diversion prevent the city from participating publicly. The longer the process takes to gain DNR approval, the less time Duchniak said Waukesha has to come into EPA compliance.
“We have continued to investigate the alternatives,” he said, “because we have to have that contingency in place.”
But Cheryl Nenn, biologist for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said Waukesha has not considered combining its alternatives. City officials also should consider water conservation methods, she said, rather than immediately requesting Lake Michigan water.
“We’re talking about the first potentially permitted application to divert Great Lakes water, and I think it’s important to keep open access,” Nenn said. “We never said we were opposed to the application, but this is precedent setting so the bar needs to be set really high.”
Baker said the DNR will send a detailed letter outlining its concerns, and it will be up to Waukesha to provide additional information.
“If they respond to the points we raised in the letter and do so quickly,” he said, “we’ll keep moving forward with our review.”