By Peter Annin, for the Journal Sentinel
On April 25, 1998, a newspaper in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario published a story that changed Great Lakes history forever. “Sault company given OK to sell Lake Superior water to Asia,” the headline read. The Nova Group, a small Canadian consulting firm, had quietly received a permit to export 158 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia every year.
That article sparked an international uproar. Stories throughout the U.S. and Canada spoke of ocean-going tankers hauling pristine Lake Superior water across the Pacific. “This is Pandora’s box,” warned Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak. “We’ve always worried that somebody will try to divert Great Lakes water to arid regions … my worst fears have been realized.”
The Nova proposal was eventually canceled, but it led to the adoption of the Great Lakes Compact in 2008. The compact bans new water diversions, with limited exceptions for communities on, or near, the Great Lakes Basin line. The first exception allows communities that straddle the Great Lakes watershed line to apply for a diversion, with the local governor having the final say on whether the diversion should be approved. The second exception involves counties that straddle the basin line. Communities that lie completely outside the Great Lakes Basin — but happen to be in a county that straddles the Basin line — can also apply for a water diversion. But straddling county applicants have a much higher bar: Their diversion requests require the approval of all eight Great Lakes governors.
The compact’s first major test came in 2010 when Waukesha applied for a straddling county diversion. Waukesha agreed to return 100% of the water, yet more than 11,000 comments streamed in, the vast majority of them opposed. In 2016, the Great Lakes governors unanimously approved Waukesha’s diversion of 8.2 million gallons per day, but Great Lakes mayors appealed the decision. For a time, it appeared the mayors and governors would awkwardly square off in court, but eventually they settled.