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Why this 2010 approval of a multi-million gallon Great Lakes water diversion is drawing new scrutiny

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The Great Lakes Compact, signed in 2008, regulates who is allowed access to water from the lakes and how much cities and municipalities can divert from the Great Lakes basin.

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 8 years.

According to his findings, the state of Wisconsin never announced that in 2010, it 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's Lester Graham 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 approvalof 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."

Grant Trigger, Michigan’s representative to the Great Lakes Compact Council, told Stateside's Cynthia Canty that the state is talking to Wisconsin and reviewing the information about the 2010 approval. But he said that it is too early to say whether or not Pleasant Prairie's water withdrawal violates the rules of the compact.  

Stateside's conversation with Grant Trigger, Michigan's representative to the Great Lakes Compact Council

"I mean it’s very possible that there isn’t really anything of significance here if Wisconsin did it in accordance with their state law. And whether Wisconsin did it in accordance with their state law isn’t something I can speak to right now because we haven’t considered it yet," he explained.  

The question over the volume of water withdrawal in Pleasant Prairie, Trigger said, hadn't been considered until the recent revelations from Annin became public. 

"And so we’re gonna take a look at it, have some discussions with other states, and determine if there’s any basis for the concern that Peter [Annin] has raised,” Trigger added. 

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. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Natalie Brennan. 

This post was updated at 4:10 p.m. on Monday, September 24, 2018.  

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