Government officials, advocates say law designed to protect Great Lakes water is working

A view of Lake Michigan from the top of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
A view of Lake Michigan from the top of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Photo: Jeff Alexander

In 2017, a senior water scientist at NASA caused a stir when he predicted that water from the Great Lakes would someday be piped to parched cities in the southwest United States.

“Because there’s so much fresh water, you can imagine that 50 years from now … there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix. I think that that’s part of our future,” said Jay Famiglietti, who has since left NASA, in an interview with an Ohio radio station.

The Great Lakes as seen from space.
An astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured this photo of the Great Lakes from space. Photo: Courtesy of NASA

Such a scenario is highly unlikely, thanks to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. The 2008 federal law bans diversions of Great Lakes water to communities outside the basin, with limited exceptions.

The Compact was developed after a Canadian entrepreneur obtained a permit in 1998 to ship 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water annually to Asia. That project, which caused an uproar in the U.S. and Canada and was eventually scrapped, revealed a shocking truth: At the time, there was not a system in place to prevent those kinds of Great Lakes water diversions.

Passage of the Compact was one of the great legal and regulatory achievements designed to protect the Great Lakes, which contain 21% of all available surface freshwater on the planet. Last month, dozens of government officials, scientists, environmental advocates, tribal officials and industry representatives who worked on the Compact gathered in Michigan to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the law.

“The Compact provides strong protections for the Great Lakes, and it’s working,” said Molly Flanagan, vice president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. “It’s a pretty remarkable law, and it’s a testament to what people of the Great Lakes region can do when we work together and decide we want to solve a problem.”

The Mott Foundation provided about $4.5 million over the course of 15 years to support organizations whose work informed the development and implementation of the Compact. Flanagan said the Compact may not have come about without Mott’s sustained, long-term support. Although Mott funds cannot be used to support lobbying activity, the Foundation provided support for research, advocacy and monitoring efforts.

“Mott provided critical funding to groups across the region, throughout the entire process,” Flanagan said. “Without Mott, the Compact would not be as strong as it is today.”

Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program, said the Foundation’s support for organizations that helped to inform and monitor implementation of the Compact was part of its long-term commitment to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. Mott has supported Great Lakes initiatives since the late 1980s.

“The Great Lakes are a globally significant resource, and we can never take them for granted,” Passmore said. “It has been gratifying to see the tireless work of Mott’s grantees and other partners produce results that bolster the management and protection of Great Lakes water resources. The Compact will protect the lakes for current and future generations.”

Collectively, the five Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River provide drinking water for over 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada, support a wealth of natural features and numerous recreational activities, and are the lifeblood of the region’s $6 trillion economy. The lakes have been eyed periodically in the past as a potential source of water for thirsty states in the southwest U.S., but the Compact prohibits it.

Negotiators representing the governors of all eight Great Lakes states, as well as the premiers of Ontario and Québec, worked for seven years to develop a draft of the Compact and corresponding cross-border Agreement. The proposed law then had to be approved — without changes — by the legislatures in all the Great Lakes states, as well as the U.S. Congress and president.

President George W. Bush signed the Compact into law in 2008, and the governments of Ontario and Québec adopted a similar, cross-border agreement with the states. The U.S. law and parallel Canadian provincial laws provide unprecedented protection for the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, according to the people who drafted it.

“The Compact is a shining example of getting together and working on an issue before there is an abject crisis. It’s a model for the world,” said Frank Ettawageshik, a former tribal chair of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians who worked on the Compact. He is currently executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan.

A map of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin with watershed areas highlighted.
The watershed of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River spans 95,160 square miles and contains 21% of all available surface freshwater on the planet. Illustration: Courtesy of Great Lakes Commission

A key aspect of the Compact is that is gives Great Lakes states authority over water diversions and water management in the basin, said Peter Johnson, deputy director of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers, which also receives grant support from Mott.

“We wanted to keep control of the Great Lakes in this region and not allow the courts and Congress to take control of the lakes,” Johnson said.

As part of the Compact, the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces in the basin agreed to develop water-management and -conservation programs, as well as new water-use reporting requirements. Johnson said those programs and other measures have generated a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge about the lakes, which will help the region adapt more effectively to climate change and other human-induced impacts.

“It’s important to remember that the power to regulate diversions under the Compact rests on the states’ ability to demonstrate that they are using the resources responsibly,” said Kimberly Gleffe, an Environment program officer at Mott. “That’s one reason why programs like Michigan’s water withdrawal assessment tool are so important.”

While the Compact bans most diversions of Great Lakes water, there are strictly regulated exceptions. The law allows communities in counties that straddle the boundaries of the Great Lakes basin to apply for water diversion permits.

In 2016, Great Lakes governors agreed to allow Waukesha, Wisconsin, to divert 8.2 million gallons of Lake Michigan water daily to provide the community with clean drinking water. The Milwaukee suburb sought the diversion to replace the city’s well water, which was contaminated with radium. The city began receiving water from Lake Michigan in October.

Government officials and Great Lakes conservation leaders praised the process that led to that ruling, even though it sanctioned a diversion. The reasons: Waukesha’s initial diversion proposal was reduced by half, the city must return all the water it uses back to Lake Michigan, and it must monitor the quality of water sent back to the lake.

Experts have said the Waukesha ruling set an extremely high regulatory bar for future diversion requests.

“The review of Waukesha’s application was driven by the law, not politics,” Johnson said.

The Compact will become more important as climate change increasingly impacts the Great Lakes and other communities outside the basin look to the lakes as a potential solution to their water shortages, said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center. NWF also receives grant support from Mott.

“For the past 15 years, the Compact has served as a beacon to the world of how to manage freshwater resources,” Smith said. “While we continue to face the unpredictable impacts of climate change, the Compact protects the Great Lakes from increasing demands from a thirsty world and does this in a way that sustains water use that protects our economy and way of life.”