Waukesha, Wisconsin is a city whose identity has always been tied to water. In the late 1800s, the town was known for its natural springs. So fresh-tasting was the water that people traveled from around the country to share in its purported medicinal properties. Among those who sought its healing powers was first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
But there are no springs in Waukesha anymore. Over the years, as Waukesha evolved into a sprawling and affluent suburb of Milwaukee, its springs went dry or were paved over. More recently, the deep sandstone aquifer that is the town’s main source of water has been drained substantially and has become contaminated with radium.
All of which has led to the watershed moment in which Waukesha finds itself today. The suburb is seeking permission to be the first community since the Great Lakes Pact of 2008 to pipe water in from the lakes, the country’s largest source of fresh surface water.
The proposal has sparked debates about sprawl and water policy in a region where land development has far outpaced population growth. And observers are watching this case closely because it will set a precedent which could have a profound effect on urban form and rural land throughout the Great Lakes region.
The Great Lakes Pact was designed to protect this important freshwater source from ever being depleted by water-starved communities in the U.S. South and Southwest. Ironically, however, unsustainable development patterns in relatively water-rich places near the Great Lakes have exhausted local freshwater sources. As a result, conflicts over Great Lakes water will be fought much closer to home. Waukesha is the first battleground.
The pact allows only communities inside the Great Lakes basin to pipe water from the lakes. Waukesha itself lies entirely outside the basin, but is eligible to apply for special diversion permission because it is part of a county that lies partly inside. Under the pact, all eight governors of the Great Lakes states will have to give their approval before Waukesha is granted an exception to pipe water 15 miles west from Lake Michigan.
First, however, the plan will need to be approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It has already received the approval of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
These decisions could open up vast new stretches of the Great Lakes region to the type of land-devouring development that already characterizes Waukesha. And it could signal more bad news for nearby rural areas, the city of Milwaukee, and other Great Lakes metro areas that can scarcely afford any more outward sprawl.
Proponents of Waukesha’s diversion plan point out that it has some environmental benefits. All water consumed by the community will be treated and then pumped back into Lake Michigan, so as not to lower water levels. The proposal would also allow the aquifer to begin its long recovery and would put an end to homeowners’ use of water softeners, which add chloride to the water, said Mike Hahn, chief environmental engineer with SEWRPC.
But watchdogs say the plan will fuel sprawl and weaken the region’s urbanized areas. The most controversial portion would create a new water service territory extending beyond the boundaries of Waukesha into surrounding municipalities.
“That’s where many of us in the environmental community look at that and think, ‘That is just to allow sprawl in the western suburbs,'” said Emily Green, senior field managing organizer with the Wisconsin Sierra Club. “That’s not what the Great Lakes Pact was intended to cover.”
Local environmentalists are working to ensure that communities from outside the basin seeking Great Lakes water are held to a very high standard.
Hahn of the Planning Commission says much of the new service area is already developed and all environmentally significant areas are precluded from development. SEWPRC has officially stated that the new service area would allow for only 1,500 new homes.
James Rowen, author of the local blog The Political Environment and a former Milwaukee mayoral staffer, thinks that estimate is low. Rowen says that, given the diversion, Waukesha is likely to use its abundance of clean freshwater to lure new businesses and residents. And the likely loser in the whole scenario is Milwaukee, which for decades has been declining relative to its western suburban neighbors.
“The compact is a water management and conservation document first and foremost,” Rowen said, and should not be used to give “one municipality an economic advantage over another, or one state over another.”
As Milwaukee has lost manufacturing jobs, suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties have beckoned to businesses and residents from the city. As the region sprawled in the nineties, its population grew only two percent, but 18 percent of its farmland was lost to development.
David Rusk of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago examined the insidious pattern of low-growth sprawl in his report “Sprawl, Race and Concentrated Poverty in Southeast Wisconsin” [PDF] in 2001. He found that between 1950 and 1990, the footprint of the Milwaukee-Waukesha metropolitan area grew at eight times the rate of its population.
New greenfield developments have had a particularly strong pull for the region’s middle- and upper-classes. The “secession” of affluent residents from the city of Milwaukee was the subject of a 1999 report by Marc Levine at the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The report noted that exurban regions of the metro area saw a 60 percent increase in their share of people with incomes greater than $100,000 between 1987 and 1997. Meanwhile, the city of Milwaukee’s population of high earners fell by 19 percent. At the time, Waukesha County contained 44 percent of the region’s affluent residents.
In turn, low-growth sprawl has widened the chasm between rich and poor, Levine wrote. The Brookings Institution recently named it the most segregated area in the country.
“Metropolitan Milwaukee has already become a highly polarized region, with growing exurban pockets of affluence more and more disconnected from an increasingly impoverished central city,” Levine wrote. “The exodus damages the city’s tax base and weakens its consumer markets, and hinders urban revitalization efforts.”
Further growth in Waukesha is likely to come at the expense of the rest of the region, said Rowen.
“Even if the city of Milwaukee were to sell Lake Michigan water to the city of Waukesha, the economic benefit would be a pittance, compared to the economic benefit transferred in terms of jobs and development,” he said.
That’s why local activists have been adamant that Waukesha control its growth and its impact on the environment and find another way to secure safe drinking water. The suburb has been making do by pulling water from a combination of deep and shallow wells and using a special filtration process. Activists say they should continue to explore alternatives like these, rather than import lake water.
It’s not just urban contingents that have raised concerns about Waukesha’s potential growth. Residents of the nearby town of Waukesha — a rural community that borders the city of Waukesha — aren’t happy about the expanded water service area either. Angie Van Scyoc, chairman of the town of Waukesha, said the plan, as it is currently written, threatens the rural character of her community, raising the threat of annexation.
“Many communities feel like the towns around them are there for their consumption,” she said. “We don’t want to be consumed by them. We want to be independent.”