Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Urban sprawl issue much more than aesthetics

By Jim Rowen

Patrick McIlheran's column today characterizing opposition to suburban sprawl being mostly a matter of aesthetics suggests he doesn't read the news columns of the very paper for which he works.

The overuse of underground water supplies because of unrestrained development in Waukesha County and other parts of southeastern Wisconsin has been well-documented.

Too many people drawing too much water has led New Berlin, the City of Waukesha, and other communities to tap into deep well water that is tainted with naturally-occuring radium.

That, in turn, led the City of Waukesha recently to consider an annexation for siting new, more shallow wells at the edge of the Vernon Marsh - - so risky to the watertable and the health of the marsh that the city's planning staff recommended against it.

Another reason the plan died: costs to taxpayers to extend city services - - sewer, police, fire, etc. - - to the annexed land's proposed, distant 191 new homes. Sprawl development - - and the Waukesha plan was textbook - - is part of the reason that taxes are rising in the suburbs.

The radium situation also led the City of New Berlin to ask for a diversion of water from Lake Michigan, though that could open the floodgates for permanent losses from the lake to more distant communities in Wisconsin and the other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces.

Mark my word: New Berlin's application for a diversion of up to 2.48 million gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan will be followed by a request from the City of Waukesha for close to ten times as much water.

Sprawling communities in Northern Illinois which are also overusing the same underground supply drawn down beneath Waukesha will want even more, and there will be pressure to move water farther and farther from the Great Lakes basin. That will inevitably lower the levels in hundreds of inland lakes and streams where other people support businesses, draw their drinking water, canoe and fish.

So it's important to manage water wisely, to treat it with respect, to make sure there is ample water for generations to come, and to understand that water stewardship is inextricably linked to the way we use the land.

These are hardly aesthetic issues: they are make-or-break for southeastern Wisconsin's success and the economy of a region that stretches across the midwest from the Mississippi River, to the Canadian border and the Atlantic Coast.

Though the Great Lakes and Wisconsin's stream, rivers and lakes appear infinite, they are not. As temperatures heat up, so does evaporation and the likelihood of a) declining water levels, and b) stronger rain events that are bad for flood control, crop management and urban water treatment facilities.

McIlheran needs to understand that when discussing land, you're also discussing water. Just think of them as the same resource, but in a different form, and you'll see that people fighting for good land use are interested in a lot more than aesthetics.


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