On a cold Wednesday evening in March 2018, hundreds of people packed into a tech center near Racine, Wisconsin, eight miles from the white sand beach of Lake Michigan. The crowd was too big for the space, spilling into an overflow room. People wrapped gray folding chairs in their winter coats. Some peered at printouts of what they intended to say when it was their turn to stand before a skinny microphone and tell state officials what they thought about subsidizing a tech plant with water from their beloved lake. This would be their first and only opportunity to do so. The Foxconn Technology Group, a Taiwanese company, said they would be building a new $10 billion facility to make liquid crystal display screens. The facility would be located in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, a community that straddles the subcontinental divide separating the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi River basin. The proposal was to go through Racine, a city that's entirely inside the Great Lakes basin, to withdraw seven million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan. Foxconn promised to return four million pre-treated gallons per day back to the lake.
Supporters welcomed the plant's promise of 13,000 new jobs. But environmental advocates argued that the deal traded public water for private profits, and that the company was unacceptably vague about the contaminants it would add to the water and how it would treat them. At the hearing in March, a woman in a beret held a cardboard sign that listed the sites of recent crises in bright letters: "ASK FLINT, CAPE TOWN, OR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ABOUT ... WATER MANAGEMENT."
Midway through the event, Jennifer Giegerich, a white-haired woman in a pink blazer, approached the microphone. "If we allow this to happen," she said, referring to Foxconn's proposal, "it is going to happen all over the basin with other states, and then it's going to be the other thirsty states and nations and corporations to come. And we're not going to have a leg to stand on."
Giegerich represented the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, a statewide advocacy group. Her argument was that this case would set a dangerous precedent for Great Lakes water use. "If we don't do it right," she explained, "then we're going to lose every opportunity to protect this thing that has made Wisconsin such a great place to live." The crowd burst into applause.
The state issued its decision the following month: The diversion was approved.
Though Foxconn now likely plans a far smaller operation with far fewer employees on the site, it still represents just one battleground in a series of conflicts that have come to be known as the "Great Lakes water wars." Wisconsin is home to other communities that intend to divert water. Chicago has withdrawn so much water from the Great Lakes that it has single-handedly lowered the levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron by 3 inches — enough to affect shorelines, shipping and habitats. In 2018, Michigan cut off bottled water service to the city of Flint during the same week that it gave permission for the Nestle corporation to nearly double the amount of groundwater it takes from the state. With a $200 yearly permit, Nestle can now withdraw 576,000 gallons each day from a well in Osceola County, which it will bottle and sell. The permit was granted despite nearly 90,000 public comments opposing it, and just 75 in support.
At the heart of all the debates are a few crucial questions: Who gets to use water in the Great Lakes basin? What can it be used for? And who has the power to decide?
These are not idle questions. The Great Lakes hold 95 percent of all the surface fresh water in the United States, and a fifth of all the surface fresh water on the planet. Only 1 percent of this is replenished each year by rainfall, snow-melt and the flow of groundwater. The rest is finite and nonrenewable. "Simply put," environmental lawyer Noah Hall said in a 2008 Senate testimony, "more fresh water is at stake in the management of the Great Lakes than any other single freshwater resource in the world."
Without a colossal intervention, we face a world of worsening extremes. By 2040, according to a United Nations report released in October, the planet will see heat waves, wildfires, food shortages, disease, and mass migration from Southern and coastal cities. There's no question that the water cycle is changing along with the climate. Glaciers and snowpacks are shrinking. Seas are rising. More frequent floods and more severe droughts strain the capacity of existing infrastructure to keep people safe. As the National Climate Assessment observed, climate change increases the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water.
Even for those who live near the five freshwater seas, that future is already here. Warmer temperatures have accelerated the evaporation of the lakes, stunted winter tourism, and heightened electricity demands. Heat waves are hitting cities like Chicago, where, in the summer of 1995, heat killed 739 people in three days. In Cleveland last year, there were 800 percent more 90-degree-plus days than in 1968.
There's more rainfall too. In recent years, Detroit, Milwaukee, Duluth, Grand Rapids, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula have experienced devastating deluges. Missy Stults, director of the new sustainability office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said that the city gets 44 percent more rain than it did 30 years ago — enough to fill 23 University of Michigan stadiums. "The system's not designed to handle that much rain," she said. More frequent floods trigger combined sewage overflows, which add toxic runoff into the Great Lakes.
Extreme precipitation and hotter temperatures are also fueling the thick blue-green algae blooms that blanket some of the Great Lakes —and not only on Lake Erie, which, as the shallowest, is most vulnerable. Lake Superior is the deepest and northernmost lake, but it's warming faster than almost all other lakes in the world. Last summer, it saw its largest bloom ever. Algae blooms harm wildlife and infrastructure, pollute beaches, and impede the fishing and recreation industries. They're also a public health risk. A toxic bloom in 2014 forced the city of Toledo to shut down its water supply for three days.
The point is this: Without clean water, people get hurt. They die. It happened in Flint, Michigan, which is just 70 miles from the third-largest freshwater lake on earth. Plants and wildlife die, too, in the lakes themselves and elsewhere. Companies can't sustain themselves, let alone grow. Without a good system for clean water, cities collapse.
What happens with the Great Lakes, now and in the future, is of utmost importance. The region faces a difficult task. It must adapt to the cascading series of problems within its borders that are exacerbated by the changing climate. At the same time, it must pioneer a process for how to balance the environmental, public health, and economic demands on the lakes, which are becoming more urgent as temperatures rise.
For a long time, water use in the Great Lakes was inadequately governed. The International Boundary Water Treaty of 1909 created a system to handle disputes in the waters shared by two nations, but it looked at diversions on a case-by-case basis, without regard for their cumulative impact on the ecosystem. The Great Lakes Charter of 1985 encouraged leaders to get the consent of others in the basin before approving large diversions, but it was an unenforceable good-faith agreement. Federal legislation came through in 1986, with the Water Resources Development Act, which banned new diversions outside the basin unless all Great Lakes governors approved. But it only applied to the United States. Canada, which controls half of the Great Lakes coastline, was left out.
In 1997, Nova Group, a Canadian company, tried to take 158 million gallons a year out of Lake Superior and ship it to Asia. In 2007, Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate who had previously served as governor of New Mexico, proposed piping Great Lakes water to the arid Southwest. Neither of those diversion attempts happened, but they were enough to catalyze leaders across the region to design and pass a crucial piece of water policy: the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.
The Great Lakes Compact, as it's more commonly known, is an unprecedented agreement between the eight states that share in 10,900 miles of coastline, informed by negotiations with two Canadian provinces, tribal groups, and other stakeholders. The deal, which was ratified in 2008, is meant to protect the lakes from exploitation by detailing how and when water can be taken outside the basin, and by whom. And it carries the force of federal law.
One innovative element of the Compact is that it treats the lakes not as five separate wells of water, but as an ecosystem, fed by rivers, tributaries, and an intricate groundwater network. That's important for measuring the cumulative impact of diversions. And those diversions — outside the basin, at least — are under a near-total ban.
The Compact is a strong line of defense for the lakes. It's comprehensive, enforceable, and its scope reaches across the border; negotiators developed a companion policy in Canada, which gave the premiers parallel terms. But there are some narrow, notable exceptions, not least for bottled water companies, and for communities and counties that are partly in the basin and partly outside of it. It didn't take long for these exceptions to be tested.
In 1868, Col. Richard Dunbar drank 12 glasses of water from a spring in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and declared himself cured of diabetes. After that, Waukesha became a spa town. "The Saratoga of the West," it was called. "Spring City." Thousands of people traveled to the area hoping for a miracle: that the pure, clean water would cure them, too, of ailments — arthritis, kidney disease, even melancholia. It took 25 trainloads a day to bring all the visitors to the mineral spring. An entrepreneur tried to pipe Waukesha water to the World's Fair in Chicago, so he could sell it, but townspeople rose up in its defense. They armed themselves with pistols and rifles, pitchforks and clubs. They lined up like an infantry at the downtown mineral spring, standing between work crews and the water.
It's been years since the springs went out of fashion. Many are now paved over. The city of 71,000 now pulls its water from a sandstone aquifer more than a thousand feet underground. But that aquifer is depleting, and the water has become contaminated with naturally occurring radium. Waukesha has pumped deeper and deeper, but the further down it drills, the greater the risk of contamination. One hundred years after Col. Dunbar announced the healing powers of the spring, Waukesha's water itself became a threat.
This was not exactly a new problem. Radium levels at twice the legal limit were first reported in the 1980s. But for years, Waukesha resisted regulation by both the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After two decades, the city lost a federal court ruling and was forced to look for an alternative means of managing its water needs. This took the form of a radical request: In 2010, Waukesha made the first-ever application to divert water under the Great Lakes Compact.
The Waukesha case set a precedent for how the Compact would work. In its application, Waukesha argued that, because of the public health risk of using water from its aquifer, and because it is in a county that straddles the basin, it deserved the opportunity to pull 8.2 million gallons of drinking water per day from Lake Michigan. After a long process, the application was approved by consensus in June 2016.
This was not an especially popular development. Environmental groups, political leaders, and citizens opposed the Waukesha proposal, fearing that it created an opening for water-starved cities around the country to drain water from the lakes. More than 120 U.S. and Canadian mayors filed a legal challenge, arguing that Waukesha did not meet the "no reasonable alternative" standard in the Compact; that it asked for more water than it needs; and that the diversion would cause ecological damage. (The case was settled.)
But an important fact about the Waukesha proposal is often elided: This particular diversion will actually replenish Great Lakes water, not deplete it. The Compact sets minimum standards for water conservation, which means that Waukesha's withdrawn water must be treated and returned to Lake Michigan, less the amount consumed. Draining the aquifer depleted basin groundwater; sparing it from further pumping, along with the return-flow requirement from the Compact, will be a net benefit for the Great Lakes.
Compare that to the largest diversion of them all, by far: the Chicago River. For more than a century, the river has flowed in reverse, because the city preferred to send its sewage toward the Mississippi River — rather than Lake Michigan, from which it draws its drinking water. Chicago is authorized to extract up to 2.1 billion gallons per day. No treated water is returned. The diversion has noticeably lowered the levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, despite their massive size. It's as if the Great Lakes sprung a leak. (The reversal remains controversial, but, in 1967, its validity was upheld by the Supreme Court.)
The Chicago diversion is the most noticeable exception to the Compact, but the Foxconn deal also tests its limits. The Foxconn facility is located in a straddling community, which would ordinarily mean that the Compact commission would vet the diversion. But state officials — who also approved $3 billion in incentives to lure Foxconn to Wisconsin and waived some environmental regulations — found a workaround by bringing in water from Racine. They frame it less like a diversion, and more like Racine — an in-basin community that hasn't used its full allotment of Lake Michigan water — is simply adding to its base of customers.
Foxconn's application was approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The DNR noted that, with return flow, the basin will lose fewer than five million gallons per day, meaning that it doesn't need the validation of Compact members. Though it hasn't received the same kind of basin-wide scrutiny, Foxconn's diversion is similar to the much-analyzed Waukesha case. And instead of being primarily for residential use, the water will subsidize a private corporation. Drafters of the Compact are currently weighing whether or not the project violates the text and spirit of the law.
Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, told a Chicago journalist that the Foxconn diversion risks a legal challenge. "A lot of people are upset with the hubris with which Wisconsin has been dismissing environmental laws in order to grease the wheels for Foxconn," he said. "The compact language does appear to provide an opportunity for opponents to trip things up."
Last May, an environmental rights group did indeed file a lawsuit against the diversion. In December 2018, it sued the Wisconsin DNR for withholding records. "It was always predicted by the authors of the compact and others who have followed this issue that sooner or later the compact would be 'refined' through litigation. And here we are," Annin said on Michigan Radio. "After 10 years, we finally have the case that's starting to do that."
Finally, in one of the most high-profile tests of how Great Lakes' water is managed, the Compact has a loophole that allows bottled water companies to remove water from the basin. The provision states that water may be diverted if it's taken out in containers that hold less than 5.7 gallons. That's convenient for companies like Nestle, as it expands the amount of groundwater it extracts from Michigan. The state's new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, made an example of Nestle in an issue paper: "We need a way to control the siphoning of water for water bottling and my administration will work to see it done."
The Compact is a powerful piece of water policy. But many corporations and communities are eager to take advantage of its compromises. Moreover, if climate change causes a national water crisis — or even a food crisis, given where so much of the food supply is sourced — Congress could pass measures that undercut or overrule the Compact entirely, putting the Great Lakes back on the nationwide negotiating table. As the environmental lawyer Noah Hall told a reporter: "It's a nice law, but it's just a law."
One day in the middle of last September, a group of college students stood in a circle on a sandy beach in Chicago, not far from Navy Pier. They had hustled to clean up the Ohio Street Beach, and now, as the sun set, it was time to take stock. To the west, tall, expensive apartment buildings and hotels loomed over them; to the east, the wilds of Lake Michigan, holding the wreckage of ships in its icy depths. Dr. Rachel Havrelock, a brown-haired woman with sharp, intent eyes and a wide smile, led the group. She hoped to guide this mix of undergraduate and graduate students in "reading" the space — not like a textbook or policy paper, but as a physical, visceral experience.
Havrelock is co-founder of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she serves as principal investigator. The Freshwater Lab is a regional consortium drawing from the humanities and social sciences to imagine a healthy future for the Great Lakes region. In addition to courses like the one meeting on the beach, the Lab also hosts unconventional summits that bring together mayors, academics, activists, engineers, artists, writers, and concerned citizens, as well as FreshwaterStories.com, a collection of interactive digital narratives. Havrelock also travels to communities throughout the Great Lakes region to talk about water — its power, its perils, and its possibilities.
"The Great Lakes give us one way to organize human society and community," Havrelock said on public television last year. "We've seen a lot of human organization develop around private property and territory, and we've also seen a fair amount of human social organization around petroleum and energy. What I think we're on the cusp of, here on the Great Lakes, is organizing society and community and economy around water."
For many students on the lakefront that day, the setting brought up memories of social experiences, like picnics, family reunions, concerts and dates. Havrelock was intrigued by how they talked about the beach as a commons, even as they stood in the shadow of exclusive buildings as a police car lingered nearby. "Yes, it's a public beach and we can all be here, we know that theoretically it belongs to all of us," she said later. "But how is that communicated in the design?"
This concept of the commons brings to mind the public trust doctrine. That's the classic legal principle behind the idea that we all share inalienable rights and responsibilities toward something. When applied to the Great Lakes, this approach suggests that decisions about the water should put the public good first, mindful not only of present needs but of the well-being of future generations.
Havrelock believes that to govern in the public interest we first have to listen to the stories people tell about the Great Lakes. For all the politics of the water wars, she told me, people aren't always motivated by ideologies, but rather by "just loving their water and forests and parks." That love drives the passionate debate about Foxconn, Waukesha, and Nestle. And it's a foundation for building our common, cross-border story — the kind of story that will help us manage the future of the Great Lakes.
Fifteen years ago, a group of Anishinaabe people, led by an elder woman who grew up on Manitou Island, in Lake Michigan, began the tradition of the Mother Earth Water Walk by circling Lake Superior on foot. In the years since, annual pilgrimages have taken them and their supporters around each of the lakes and to other waterways. To mark the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they walked from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Lake Superior in Wisconsin. They set out at sunrise and didn't stop until the sun set, and they carried a pail of saltwater all the way.
In song, in ceremony, in words, and in simple presence, the Water Walkers tell a collective story of witness and reverence. It's a story that may help point the way forward. As Sharon Day, an Anishinaabe woman from Minneapolis, put it, "We know that the water is living and there are many water spirits, and that's who we sing to, but to most people, the water is not alive. When we commodify water, it becomes a product, and we no longer think about it as a living thing."
Precedent-setting cases like Foxconn, Waukesha, and Nestle test whether or not we will hold the inland seas as a public trust — not just on paper, but in practice. It's not about choosing between economic and environmental visions, Havrelock told me. It's about cultivating a different vision entirely, one in which the health of the lakes is seen as intrinsically connected to the health of the people.
So, what story will we tell? One thing is clear: In this perilous new era, marked by chronic droughts, rising seas, and a changing climate, those who control the water in this place of abundance possess ever greater power. What we do with it —and how, and by whom, these choices are made — will shape the future of life in the region and beyond.
This article was originally published by Belt Mag. It is republished here with permission.