Anna Clark is the author of “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.”
The Great Lakes — five inland seas holding one-fifth of all the fresh water on Earth — are vast, but they are not limitless. So it is alarming that Wisconsin intends to send water out of the basin not because public health demands it but because a private company wants it. This cuts against the understanding of the lakes as a public trust and, in an era of nationwide water insecurity, sets a dangerous precedent.
Foxconn Technology Group, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, is building a plant to make LCD screens in Mount Pleasant, Wis. The state that landed Foxconn with environmental waivers and about $4 billion in incentives decided that it was fine for it to have Great Lakes water, too. In 2018, Wisconsin granted a permit for Racine and Foxconn to use 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan, taking it outside the area where water naturally returns to the Great Lakes watershed.
The diversion sidesteps a key piece of water policy that is commonly called the Great Lakes Compact. The compact, along with Ontario and Quebec’s parallel agreement, is a protocol for when water can be taken outside the basin — which is to say, almost never. But there are exceptions for cities and counties that straddle the watershed boundary. With its groundwater contaminated by naturally occurring radium, Waukesha, Wis., went through an intensely scrutinized application to take water from Lake Michigan. It took seven years, including legal appeal, before the diversion was finalized.
Mount Pleasant, a village of 27,000 people, is a straddling community, so the Foxconn diversion would be expected to go through similarly tough scrutiny. But Mount Pleasant didn’t make the diversion request. It was made instead by Racine, a neighboring city on the lakeshore. As an in-basin community, Racine merely asked the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to expand its service area, and the DNR agreed.
The DNR has noted that more than half the diverted water will be treated and returned to the watershed. The DNR also said even if the plant itself is outside the basin, most of Mount Pleasant is within it. Racine delivers much of its drinking water anyway, it said, so the utility isn’t doing anything extraordinary by accommodating new development.
But the deal violates the spirit of the compact, which describes the basin’s waters as “precious public natural resources shared and held in trust by the States.” While straddling communities can receive Great Lakes water that is “used solely for public water supply purposes,” this new diversion is aimed at a single industrial customer. Seventy percent of the water that Racine delivers to Mount Pleasant will go to Foxconn. The deal not only removes water from the Great Lakes; it also privatizes it.
There’s a twist to this story. After the DNR approved the diversion, Foxconn dramatically reduced the scope of its plant. But its water allotment is unchanged. Taxpayer dollars are already paying for expanded infrastructure. As a steward of the Great Lakes, Wisconsin should proportionally scale back Foxconn’s diversion. One Taipei-based analyst estimates that Foxconn’s new plans require only 1.4 million gallons a day, rather than 7 million.
This is not the first time that Wisconsin has sidestepped the compact. As Peter Annin reveals in the new edition of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” it tripled the share of water allocated to the village of Pleasant Prairie in 2010 — an apparent attempt to entice development to the Interstate 94 corridor.
As a good-faith partner to the seven other states, two provinces and tribal communities that border the Great Lakes, Wisconsin should stop making broad exceptions to our water protections. This is also an opportunity to refine what is otherwise a model water policy. The compact should be amended to state plainly that Great Lakes water cannot be diverted just to benefit new private development, even when delivered by an in-basin utility.
Southeast Wisconsin has just a narrow ribbon of land in the Great Lakes basin. For nearby communities, water restrictions are frustrating. But the geological boundary matters. Out of respect for basin ecology, the compact set a hard path for diversions. The application process is lengthy and expensive. Diversions are meant to be a last resort.
Water is alchemizing into 21st-century gold. California has been battered by drought. The Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer are diminished and overtaxed. Toxic industrial chemicals known as PFAS have contaminated drinking water throughout the country.
For years, people have looked to the Great Lakes as a source of relief. In the face of looming demands, the compact prioritizes the ecological integrity of the lakes. But the rules are undermined when one of its own members skirts them. It is difficult to see how the compact will withstand foreseeable political pressure from outsiders to loosen protections — and the cumulative impact could be disastrous.