Credit: Gateway Technical College/flickr

A crack in the Great Lakes Compact? Approved water diversion prompts pushback

"The idea that massive water bodies can be permanently transformed is not a fanciful one"

The Great Lakes hold quadrillions of gallons of water. Is allowing one more company to take water from them such a big deal?


Yes, say groups worried about the slippery slope of Great Lakes' diversions.

A controversial plan to divert 7 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan to the proposed site of a factory in Wisconsin, run by Foxconn, an international manufacturer of electronics, was upheld by an administrative law judge earlier last month. That hasn't ended opposition to the plan by environmental groups or settled worries that this decision is the first crack in the Great Lakes Compact, a regional agreement to keep 21 percent of the world's surface freshwater where it is now: within the Great Lakes basin.

Controversial diversions from the basin have been approved in the past, but opponents claim this diversion is strictly for industrial purposes and violates the Compact. Though much of the water used at the proposed factory will be returned to the Great Lakes basin, opponents worry the precedent set will open the door to more harmful diversions in the future.

The Great Lakes Compact, enacted in 2008, is still young and relatively untested.

"One of those [diversions] is not going to make or break the health of the Great Lakes," Peg Sheaffer, the director of communications for Midwest Environmental Advocates, the organization leading the opposition, told EHN. "If we set the precedent that other states follow, the cumulative impact of multiple diversions could have a significant effect."

The Great Lakes Compact says that Great Lakes water must stay within the basin, except for public water supplies in cities or counties that straddle the boundary. A diversion to a city outside the basin but in a straddling county must be reviewed and approved by the governors of all eight states bordering the Lakes and the premier of Ontario, the only Canadian province bordering the lakes. A diversion to a straddling community—a city which the basin boundary passes through—only needs the approval of the home state.

Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, the future home of Foxconn, is a straddling community.

But there are hundreds of straddling communities around the Great Lakes basin, Sheaffer said.

More cell phones, more water 

Foxconn is building a massive plant to manufacture LCD screens—for tablets, mobile devices, computers and other uses— in Mount Pleasant, so Racine, Wisconsin, which provides Mount Pleasant with water, applied for a diversion to serve the site. That application was approved by Wisconsin in April 2018 and challenged shortly after by Midwest Environmental Advocates and several other groups. That challenge was denied in June, but further appeal is possible.

Both sides of the debate acknowledge that the amount of water to be drawn from Lake Michigan—7 million gallons a day—won't negatively affect the level or health of the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan holds 1,180 cubic miles of water. At a rate of 7 million gallons a day—ignoring the 4.3 million gallons the application says will be returned to Lake Michigan via Racine's wastewater processing facilities—it would take more than 150,000 days to remove one cubic mile of water.

But opponents argue that the diversion isn't allowed under the Great Lakes Compact. The argument hinges on interpretation of two paragraphs in the Compact and the definition of public water supply.

First, the Compact says water can be transferred outside the basin within a straddling community "provided that, regardless of the volume of Water transferred, all the Water so transferred shall be used solely for Public Water Supply Purposes within the Straddling Community."

Second, a public water supply is water distributed through treatment, storage and distribution infrastructure that serves "a group of largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial, and other institutional operators."

Opponents say the water used outside the basin must be used primarily for residential purposes.

The argument that the Compact allows a diversion like this—because it's being added on to existing residential infrastructure, even if it is serving commercial customers outside the basin—is "really unreasonable," Sheaffer said.

"Diversions were never intended to aid and abet industrial development outside the Great Lakes basin, and that's a really important distinction," Sheaffer added.

Aerial photo showing both lakes Michigan and Huron. (Credit: Stuart Rankin/flickr)

Others don't think the diversion actually tests the limits of the Compact.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources "ensured compliance with all requirements of the Great Lakes Compact as well as all federal and state laws," Adam Freihoefer, the water use section chief in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' drinking water and groundwater bureau, told EHN in an email. "The DNR feels that the consistent adherence to the requirements of the Compact is one aspect that makes the Compact strong after 10 years of implementation."

When the application was submitted, other Great Lakes states asked Wisconsin to further explain how the diversion met the definition of public water supply purposes. One of those states, Michigan, feels that Wisconsin has now adequately explained its decision.

"Any proposed diversion of Great Lakes water deserves the highest level of attention and review," Emily Finnell, Great Lakes Senior Advisor and Strategist in Michigan's Office of the Great Lakes, told EHN.

Because few diversions have been approved under the Compact, each new application offers details that haven't been encountered before and requires care, she said.

Proponents of the approved diversion say it clearly counts as public use. Despite the fact that the water used outside the basin will be for primarily commercial uses, it is part of the larger Racine water system that mostly serves residential customers.

"It's important to note that 92 percent of Mount Pleasant is within the Lake Michigan water basin and is already served by the Racine Water Utility and that the vast majority of those served are residential users," Keith Haas, General Manager of the Racine Water and Wastewater Utilities, wrote in a public statement at the time of the application. Haas also pointed out the water needs of the thousands of Foxconn employees who will staff the factory, which will be served by the diversion.

Any water sent to or from Foxconn will pass through Racine's facilities. Haas isn't concerned about what's still unknown: the exact amount of water Foxconn will need or how contaminated the wastewater will be.

"It's nothing we're new to here," he told EHN. "It's just another industry that will be treated the same as the other industries we work with."

Racine Water and Wastewater Utilities already receives wastewater from close to 40 other industrial sites which must pretreat the water to remove certain pollutants, Haas said. Although he doesn't know how much wastewater will be sent back by Foxconn or if it will need to be pretreated, Haas said it has to meet local, state and federal standards, especially with the extra scrutiny from opponents at every step of the process.

"This will be the most transparent pretreatment application in the history of the country," Haas said.

"People are afraid of the unknown. Today they're afraid of wind. Tomorrow they might be afraid of Foxconn," Haas said, referencing recent windstorms in Racine.

Opponents of the deal say they aren't afraid of Foxconn specifically. They're concerned about the future protection of an invaluable source of water.

If Foxconn had located entirely within the basin, Midwest Environmental Advocates wouldn't have a problem with their water use, Sheaffer told EHN in an email.

Averting a future crisis

Beachgoers at Port Stanley Beach on Lake Ontario. (Credit: Gary Paakkonen/flickr)

The Great Lakes Compact is a unique agreement because it was formed before the crisis it addresses.

Although agreements meant to stop future diversion were on the books, in the 1990s the patchwork nature of regulations allowed the government of Ontario to approve a plan by the Canadian Nova Group to ship water from the Great Lakes to Asia.

"This was the classic straw that broke the camel's back," Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, a book about the decades-long argument about where Great Lakes water is used, told EHN.

The Great Lakes Compact drew a clear line—the boundary of the Great Lakes basin—to contain Great Lakes water, Annin said.

Wisconsin isn't new to controversial diversions outside that boundary.

Waukesha, Wisconsin, applied for a diversion which was approved in 2016 after a review process by all the Great Lakes states and provinces. In a long and heavily contested application process, Waukesha had to revise its application to cover a smaller area and withdraw less water—8.2 million gallons per day—before it was approved.

In 2009, New Berlin, Wisconsin, was granted the first diversion: 2.142 million gallons of water per day.

While the Great Lakes are massive and the Compact is firmly in place, other bodies of water thought too big to fail have been altered forever by diversion, Annin said.

The Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, prompting the seven states who rely on its water to recently draft greater protections for its use. The Aral Sea is 10 percent the size it was in the 1960s before the Soviet Union siphoned off most of its water for irrigation.

"The idea that massive water bodies can be permanently transformed is not a fanciful one," said Annin, who directs the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation.

Although depleting the Great Lakes is a credible but distant threat, the chances of one diversion or another harming the lakes are still low. The largest diversion in the Great Lakes' history, which, since the early 1900s, sends 2.1 billion gallons of Lake Michigan water to the Mississippi River every day via the reversed flow of the Chicago River, lowered Lakes Michigan and Huron 2.5 inches below their natural levels. A few more diversions the size of the Chicago River could drop lake levels a foot which, in addition to the six feet that levels naturally fluctuate, could disrupt shipping on the Great Lakes, Annin said.

On top of that, Annin and other researchers see the world leaving a century of oil and entering a century of water, in which conflict and human movements are driven by freshwater availability, not oil reserves. Peter Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute which studies solutions to water challenges, wrote that the Syrian refugee crisis was, in part, a climate-driven water crisis.

"It's true that from a Great Lakes perspective this water diversion issue is not some wolf at the door now. What's remarkable about the Great Lakes Compact is that it's this multijurisdictional, bipartisan agreement adopted in the absence of a crisis on behalf of future generations," he told EHN. "And that doesn't happen very often."

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