Much of the history of the western US played out against the backdrop of water rights. Range wars were often ignited by disputes as to the placement of wells and the channeling of rivers and streams. Water compacts in the west still hit the news as the populations grow and sprawl out over wider and wider areas. Los Angeles, for example, pipes water in from Northern California, Mono Lake, and, to a lesser extent, the Colorado River. The city and county has had to play hardball politics with the ranchers and corporate agriculturists of various valleys in order to get enough water to support its burgeoning population.
What those of us living in the western part of the nation forget is that water is a precious commodity all over the nation (and the continent, for that matter), and supplies are beginning to get scarce in many areas. I was forcefully reminded of this fact by an article in this morning's NY Times
As I've mentioned previously, I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I went to college at a small liberal arts school (Carroll College) in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is about 15 miles west of Milwaukee. The NY Times article deals with both cities.Time was when Waukesha's mineral-rich water was coveted by Milwaukeeans and Chicagoans, who scorned the Lake Michigan water lapping at their shores. In 1892, one speculator even tried to pipe the city's water to Chicago for the coming World's Columbia Exposition, until aroused Waukeshans trained pistols, pitchforks and fire hoses on the pipe layers, who retreated.
What a difference a century makes. Waukesha has sucked so much water from its deep aquifer that it is now looking to the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan, just as Chicagoans once eyed its water.
But the authorities who control some of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world are not sure that any of it should go to communities like Waukesha, which is 15 miles from the lake's shore but outside of its watershed.
Several things need to be kept in mind about Wisconsin. First, agricultural (including dairy farming) makes up a sizeable portion of Wisconsin's economy. Second, there are two primary sources for water in the state. In the western part of the state, it is the Mississippi River. In the eastern part of the state, it is the Great Lakes, primarily Lake Michigan.
Because of several years of drought, the water level of Lake Michigan has been lowered precipitously, and is just now beginning to rebound. During those drought years (and for at least a decade before), Waukesha County has grown by leaps and bounds as people moved from Milwaukee to the west, making Waukesha a kind of exurb of Milwaukee. The expansion has caused a serious drop in the Waukesha water table (which is, of course, just barely outside the technical Lake Michigan watershed), and one of the results is that the water at the current level of the table is higher in naturally occuring radium than allowed by the EPA, which only complicates matters for Waukesha County. Needless to say, the people of Milwaukee County are not being terribly sympathetic.If the city does not get access to Lake Michigan water, it will face bills of perhaps tens of millions of dollars to lower the radium levels by either cleaning up the existing water or finding a new, uncontaminated source. But some politicians in Milwaukee, where the population fell by 8.9 percent in the 1990's, are loath to sell the city's Lake Michigan water to suburbs that have been draining away their businesses and wealthier residents, and their tax base.
Waukesha County "supports widening roads to allow for more transportation on the roadways to get more access out to that community, rather than try to limit the sprawl out there," said Michael Murphy, a Milwaukee alderman. "Their solution to the problem is not the conservation of their limited resources, but looking to Lake Michigan."
For critics like Emily Green, who oversees Great Lakes issues for the Sierra Club, Mr. Duchniak's arguments are a dodge. Her complaint, like that of Mr. Murphy, the Milwaukee alderman, is the absence of conservation as the growth spurt of the western exurbs, in towns like Oconomowoc, has accelerated.
"Yes, people need a place to live," Ms. Green said. "But do they need McMansions on five-acre lots?"
And therein lies the real source of the problems: unplanned and unsustainable growth linked to the automobile. There will obviously be no easy solution to this problem, as people in the western part of the country know. Hopefully, the MidWest will learn to manage their resources with more sense.