Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
The future of southeastern Wisconsin depends on our ability to embrace regional interdependence and to end the mindset of us vs. them. When competing globally, jurisdictional boundaries are obsolete. A culture change has begun among many leaders, but all stakeholders must embrace regional cooperation if we are to stay competitive. The old ways of regional in-fighting should be rejected. Progress toward our future must first begin with trust.
In his fascinating book adopted by Channel 10 in a recent documentary about the history of Milwaukee, “The Making of Milwaukee,” area historian and writer, John Gurda documents the old battles between the respective barons of the east and west sides of the Milwaukee River. As a result of those battles by Byron Kilbourn and Solomon Juneau, the east-west streets approaching the Milwaukee River were intentionally designed to be unaligned. Because of this short-sighted territorial struggle, bridges built to span the Milwaukee River downtown had to be built at sharp angles to meet the streets on each side of the river.
The current debate over whether the city of Milwaukee should provide water from Lake Michigan to cities in Waukesha County has the potential to repeat the mistakes of our past.
Enlightened leaders in the area should avoid repeating the early history of parochial regional politics and find a cooperative solution that serves the interests of the metropolitan region.
The respective communities in the region have found occasion to cooperate on important issues in the not-so-distant-past. For example, Waukesha and other surrounding counties agreed to pay additional sales tax to support the development of Miller Park within the city of Milwaukee. The conventional wisdom supporting this regional public asset is that professional baseball was good for the entire region with results that are beneficial for all.
Another example of regional cooperation is the current reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange. No one seriously argues against the expenditure of more than $1 billion of state funds for a capital improvement project which is located wholly within the city of Milwaukee, yet benefits the entire region.
Milwaukee’s industry has changed significantly from its early days when it was dominated by manufacturing and breweries, which required an ample supply of water. Many of these “wet” industries no longer exist, and Milwaukee is now left with unused capacity for its existing water supply infrastructure.
One solution that could demonstrate innovative regional cooperation could be a regional agreement providing Lake Michigan water for communities in Waukesha County by the city of Milwaukee or other Lake Michigan water plants. The benefits of such a regional agreement are many:
•   Use by these Waukesha County communities of Lake Michigan water will utilize the current excess capacity that exists in the city of Milwaukee water system due to the loss of substantial consumption from the departure of wet industries over the years.
• The potential for return flow of Waukesha treated wastewater to basins serving Lake Michigan could actually improve local fish hatcheries in the region.
• An agreement which assures adequate water supplies in the major urban areas within the region would serve to attract more business/citizens to the region for the benefit of the area economy.
• A negotiated agreement would avoid a partisan fight in the Wisconsin legislature over the terms of the approval of the recent Great Lakes water agreement, known as Annex 2001.
• An agreement could be structured with any Waukesha County community so that it protects Lake Michigan by establishing standards and principles that do not create opportunities for more distant thirsty communities eyeing Great Lakes water that are located outside the basin.
• The current uses of groundwater for drinking by Waukesha County communities are causing a significant drawdown of the water level in the deep aquifer in the area. Supplying Lake Michigan to these communities would result in a dramatic recovery of the groundwater table in the area.
It is apparent that there are many more factors that serve to unite rather than divide the region over the Lake Michigan water issue. Appropriate representatives from the Waukesha County communities and Milwaukee should meet now to look for a regional solution to meet the water needs of the Waukesha County communities.
Regardless of city and county borders, the southeastern Wisconsin region is a basic unit of prosperity as well as ecological and social balance. Across the country, regions are getting things done in large part because the existing “players” are working together in innovative new alliances.
Community leaders (public, private, and institutional) are working together to raise regional consciousness and manage change through cooperative regional action.
We should learn from the early battles of Kilbourn and Juneau. The urban communities in the region should avoid the sharp angles of dissent and align with one another over this important water issue. It is the best way to build a bridge that will serve commerce and cooperation between the communities located in our region.