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After 15 years of the Great Lakes Compact, report urges state action to address shortcomings.


Laina G. Stebbins

After a controversial contract allowing a Canadian company to ship 156 million gallons of water from Lake Superior to Asia yearly drew backlash from residents, the Great Lakes States and provinces banded together, striking a bipartisan deal to protect the lakes’ water. 

More than 15 years after the Great Lakes Compact was signed, For Love of Water (FLOW), a Great Lakes advocacy organization, has reevaluated the compact and its goal of protecting lake water from being diverted by canals, aqueducts, pipelines, vessels, tunnels or tanker trucks. 

The compact was signed by all eight states in the Great Lakes Basin, with a nonbinding parallel agreement with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. FLOW identified the ban on most diversions of water outside of the Great Lakes basin, efforts by Great Lakes states to monitor water use and promote water conservation, and creating a forum for dialogue on Great Lakes water quality issues as high points of the compact.  FLOW also critiqued the compact, saying it facilitates treating Great Lakes water as a product, which is what prompted the creation of the compact. 

“The commercialization of water sanctioned by the Compact is both a short and long-term threat. Water extraction for bottling and sale threatens sensitive local ecosystems where groundwater pumping impacts wetlands and stream levels,” FLOW’s report said. “An even bigger long-term threat: allowing the sale of Great Lakes waters risks diminishing public control of the Great Lakes — and reducing the Great Lakes themselves.”

For Love of Water

It also pointed to vaguely defined exceptions to the ban on water diversions as a concern, and said approvals in Wisconsin for in-state water diversion create potential for abuse, allowing Great Lakes water to be used as an economic development tool. 

To address these concerns, FLOW offers three recommendations focused on Michigan, calling the state a natural leader on Great Lakes policy due to its status as the only state in the compact that sits almost entirely in the Great Lakes basin. The first recommendation advises ending the practice of using Great Lakes water diversions as an economic development tool and restoring the original intent of permitted diversions within the Great Lakes states. 

When the compact was created, FLOW said the exceptions to the ban on water diversion were intended to address situations where contaminated water impacted public health, with compact language requiring diversions to  “serve a group of largely residential customers.” 

The compact’s ban on large-scale diversion has not been tested, the report said, with no proposals to transfer Great Lakes water out of states in the basin coming forward to date.

However, FLOW argues that the exceptions to the diversion ban have been exploited in Wisconsin, with the state authorizing five new or increased water diversions since 2009. While one of these diversions in Waukesha, Wis., was used to replace contaminated groundwater, the request was scaled back due to public pressure, and the request required approval from the seven other states in the compact.  The other four only required approval from the state of Wisconsin, with each dedicated at least in part to business development, FLOW said. 

“Treating Great Lakes water as an economic development tool raises issues about the ecological rationale for the Compact, and could be used by states entirely outside of the watershed to justify Great Lakes water removal for commerce,” the report said.

“The State of Michigan should initiate this recommendation through the Compact Council, which includes governors or their designees of the Great Lakes states,” FLOW said.

The second recommendation encourages a dialogue to ensure the humanitarian exemption to the Great Lakes diversion ban is well defined ahead of a crisis. 

This exception does not include an explanation, nor does it define what a humanitarian purpose would be or determine the scope to which the exemption applies, FLOW said. 

“It is essential to detail the application criteria and decision-making mechanisms or body that will determine if an exemption applies to a particular humanitarian case. In case of any disputes arising out of this exemption, it is imperative that the Compact or implementation procedures clearly outlines how these can be resolved,” the report said. 

“Since water is a public trust, the public should be involved in discussions and decision-making about the scope of the exemption well in advance of a crisis,” it said. 

The final recommendation advises states, beginning with Michigan, to enact legislation that treats all removals of Great Lakes water equally, regardless of the volume of the container. 

FLOW’s report pointed to the 5.7 gallon limit on exports of water within the compact that determines whether it is considered a diversion. Exports in containers of 5.7 gallons or less are only considered diversions if an individual state passes a law categorizing them that way. 

No state has passed legislation of this nature, which creates a loophole for the bottled water industry, FLOW said. 

Changes to the compact are unlikely, FLOW noted in its report, with amendments requiring approval from both legislative chambers in each of the eight states, as well as each state’s governor, Congress and the president. As a result, it rests on individual states to take action, FLOW said. 

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