When Peter Annin, director of the Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College, was completing research for an updated version of his book The Great Lakes Water Wars, he discovered a detail about Great Lakes water diversions that had gone unnoticed for eight years.
According to his findings, the state of Wisconsin never announced it had approved the village of Pleasant Prairie’s request to extract seven million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan, the largest water diversion in the state.
Annin joined Stateside to talk about whether the diversion might have violated the Great Lakes Compact, a regional agreement between the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces signed in 2008. It bans the “diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin, with limited exceptions.” Annin refers to the compact as a “legal water fence” that “is designed to keep Great Lakes water inside the Great Lakes basin.”
Communities that are partially located in the Great Lakes basin, as well as those in counties that straddle the basin, are the only exceptions to that rule. Those communities are allowed to apply for water diversions.
Annin explained that following the signing of the compact, Great Lakes governors were required to report the levels of all existing diversions to be grandfathered into future extraction plans. Wisconsin’s Pleasant Prairie had been approved to use Lake Michigan water in the late 1980s following public health concerns. At this time, Pleasant Prairie was approved for a diversion of 3.2 million of gallons of water per day.
According to Annin, when Wisconsin’s state officials reported their diversion levels to the Great Lakes Governors Association, they boosted Pleasant Prairie’s diversion levels to 10.69 million of gallons of water per day. That made it the largest water diversion in all of Wisconsin, and its approval came with no public notification.
In 2016, when the Wisconsin city of Waukesha wanted to draw increased amounts of water from Lake Michigan, it had to get the approval of the governors from all eight Great Lakes states. This April, before the Foxconn Plant in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin received approval from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, drafters of the Great Lakes Compact discussed whether or not the corporate use of the water violated the agreement.
“The Great Lakes Compact was adopted in an incredibly transparent way. The Waukesha diversion was also was processed in a very transparent way, and what is shocking a lot of people is that you could have this massive seven million gallon water diversion for a relatively modestly sized community—that became the largest water diversion in Wisconsin—and nobody knew,” said Annin.
“Wisconsin now has more water diversions than all other great lakes states combined. And it has become sort of what I call the new frontline in the Great Lakes water war” he added.
Stateside contacted the office of Gov. Rick Snyder for a comment. Press Secretary Tanya Baker sent us this statement:
“All jurisdictions take compliance with the Great Lakes Compact very seriously. The state is looking back through the record to try to understand the history, as well as reviewing the case to see what the impact of the withdrawal is. If an issue is identified, it will be taken up with the Compact Council.”
Annin said that the Wisconsin DNR is adamant they have followed the letter of the law and that the Pleasant Prairie water diversion is legal. But he said not everyone agrees with them, and the Chicago-based environmental group the Alliance for the Great Lakes is currently consulting attorneys over the issue.