The 10-year-old Great Lakes Compact is not just an agreement among eight states. It is also a compact between the citizens and public officials of those states. A decision yesterday in Wisconsin puts both compacts at risk.
Wisconsin has now approved a diversion of up to 2.7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to be used by Foxconn for industrial purposes.
But the premise of the Compact is that governments will do everything in their power to prevent diversions of Great Lakes water, reflecting the will of the people of this region. After all, the compact arose from public outrage over a 1998 proposal to ship Lake Superior water to Asia. It wasn’t government that initiated the compact, it was a clamor from the public.
In two ways, the fine print of the Compact departed from the public’s opposition to water diversions. First, the Compact exempts from its ban on diversions shipments of water for sale as long as the shipments are in small containers, such as bottles. This condones the privatization of a public trust resource and could yield control of the Great Lakes over to commercial interests.
The other, supposedly more limited exemption is one for public health. Communities straddling the Great Lakes watershed boundary, or outside of it but in a straddling county, are allowed to seek diversions to supply public drinking water if there is no alternative. Specifically, the Compact provides that the exempted diversion water “shall be used solely for Public Water Supply Purposes.”
But under Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin is attempting to use Lake Michigan as yet another giveaway on top of $3 billion in other tax incentives to lure Foxconn and the jobs it would create to his state. The company’s facility, just outside the Great Lakes watershed, will enjoy the bulk of up to 2.7 million gallons a day of water from the lake that it would not return.
The City of Racine’s application is clear that the water it seeks will help “meet forecasted demands for water resulting from expected development in the Village of Mount Pleasant along the Interstate-94 corridor.” The Wisconsin DNR website affirms that the area served includes the area identified as the future site of the Foxconn facility. Clearly, the purpose of the proposal is primarily industrial. Until there is a factual basis that demonstrates the proposal will serve “largely residential customers,” and that the industrial portion of the proposal is merely incidental, this application cannot be approved.
An additional problem is that as currently construed by Wisconsin, the other seven Great Lakes states have no formal role to play in approving or rejecting the Foxconn proposal. That’s because the village in which Foxconn would be located is a “straddling community,” whose fate the Compact leaves to the originating state in most cases.
This proposal turns the Great Lakes into a subsidy for development – just like a tax break – outside the Great Lakes watershed. It could lead to a Great Lakes industrial water reservoir available for all states to create, populated by dozens of industries in existing or even new straddling communities, subject only to a single state’s approval.
The question then becomes if the Great Lakes states themselves can tap the lakes for politically favored interests, why can’t other states do the same? Clearly, under this interpretation, the Compact is not solely concerned about the health of the lakes or the health of the people close by. It is a cash cow for private interests — and vulnerable to legal attack from outside the watershed.
That’s not what the public thought it was getting. It breaks the compact between the governed and those who govern. Moreover, when the states approved the Compact, Wisconsin included, they adopted a provision that they must follow the standards of the Compact. This means the threshold question of whether Wisconsin is construing the “straddling community” “incidental industry” standard too loosely to serve its own ends is not for Wisconsin to decide alone, but for all the states to the Compact and the citizens of the Great Lakes watershed it protects.
The Great Lakes states must honor their promise, insist on a stringent interpretation of the “straddling community” exception and stop the Foxconn water giveaway.