Great Lakes Water Protection Agreement in Jeopardy?

August 11, 2023

By: Devin White,  WMEAC’s Environmental Advocacy Fellow. Senior at Hope College studying biology with a minor in political science.

We live in one of the most water-rich places on Earth. The Great Lakes hold about one-fifth of all of the surface freshwater in the world. With all this water around us, we take for granted our fresh, clean water. However, across the United States, water scarcity is increasing, and community drinking water supplies are drying up. We see our neighbors in other states struggling with their drinking water supplies, and their answer to this problem. Taking water from Lake Michigan. 

Waukesha, Wisconsin, located just outside of Milwaukee, is finishing up a three-year construction project to switch its municipal water supply from failing aquifers to Lake Michigan. Joliet, a Chicago suburb, was just approved to buy Lake Michigan water from Chicago. Foxconn Technology Group, a privately-held company in Racine, Wisconsin, was approved to divert seven million gallons of Lake Michigan water a day for company use. Is there anything governing all of these requests for Lake Michigan water? 

The short answer is yes. The Great Lakes Compact is a federal and international agreement between the Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec that governs all water diversions into and out of the Great Lakes basin, barring those in Chicago, Illinois which are controlled by a separate 1899 Supreme Court case. The Compact allows for two types of diversions: one for communities that lie between the Great Lakes basin and any other basin and another for those that are in any county that straddles the basin. The first must be approved by the state the community is in and the second by all basin states. Waukesha, Joliet, and Racine might seem like communities that are part of the Great Lakes Basin, they reside just outside, in the Mississippi River basin. 

The question of whether or not all of this water being taken from the Great Lakes will impact water levels and the overall health of the basin is a complicated question to answer. For those diversions governed by the Compact, a requirement for approval is that the water be returned to the Great Lakes basin. This ensures that overall water volumes will not change much. It also functionally prohibits non-Great Lakes states and communities outside of the region from requesting diversions. 

Right now the Compact protects the environmental health of the Great Lakes, but if demand for water outside the basin continues to grow, the basin’s health could be in danger. Why? The Compact will face continued pressure to allow outside water diversions as water scarcity threatens our nation’s drinking water. In order to protect the health of Lake Michigan and 

the lakes and rivers we love so much, the integrity of the Compact must be protected.