Why Ontarians should care about Wisconsin’s water

ANALYSIS: Foxconn might soon be allowed to take millions of gallons of water from Lake Michigan per day — and that could set a dangerous precedent, writes Tim Alamenciak
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on April 11, 2018
It may be far away and in a different country, but the water that Foxconn is asking to use is the same water that much of Ontario relies on. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons)

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For more than 80 per cent of Ontarians who get their drinking water from the Great Lakes, now is the time to think about Racine, Wisconsin.

It’s there that officials are considering whether to grant Foxconn, a major Taiwanese electronics company, access to water from Lake Michigan for the purpose of manufacturing LCD panels.

It may be far away and in a different country, but the water Foxconn is asking for is the same water that much of Ontario relies on. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are intimately connected — so much so that, hydrologically, they’re considered a single body of water.

What happens in Wisconsin is relevant in Wiarton. Or Wikwemikong. Or Wasaga Beach.

“If this goes forward, it opens the door for any company to come forward and say, ‘Look, you said yes to them, and we have ours, and we have ours.’ Then you have death by a thousand straws,” says Gail Krantzberg, a professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster University, and previously the director of the Great Lakes Regional Office of the International Joint Commission. “I think the people of Ontario should not stand for that.”

The Great Lakes region is not in danger of seeing the sort of “Day Zero” scenario that took place in Cape Town — at 6 quadrillion gallons, the lakes are far too big for that. Yet they’re still vulnerable to disturbances. Water-treatment plants, for example, are sensitive to depth changes, which can result from large-scale extraction.

The city of Racine has filed what’s known a diversion application — an official request to access millions of gallons of Great Lakes water per day.

Racine is asking for 5.8 million gallons per day for Foxconn and 1.2 million gallons per day for other industrial customers. Of that 7 million gallons per day, 4.3 million would be returned to the Great Lakes in the form of treated wastewater. The decision to grant Racine’s request rests with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (The application was received January 26; the department is still completing its review.)

The city of Racine straddles both the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi River basin. The international agreement that governs the use of Great Lakes water — the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact — allows communities that abut two basins to request water from the Great Lakes for areas that might fall beyond the dividing line. The agreement, however, is very specific and allows diversions only for “Public Water Supply Purposes,” which must be “largely residential.”

Racine’s request “doesn't meet the requirements of the compact, which is a legally binding document. It should just be denied by the Wisconsin department of natural resources,” says Jacqueline Wilson, counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, who wrote a submission to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on behalf of CELA. And, she adds, there are no environmental safeguards around the return flow.

“The whole idea of the Great Lakes compact and agreement was this deep understanding that we're all in this together. Different uses around the Great Lakes basin have a cumulative impact and affect all of us. No matter where these diversions are happening, they have an impact on the Great Lakes basin,” says Wilson.

This isn’t the first time a diversion request has been considered.

A diversion request from Waukesha, Wisconsin, for example, was granted in 2016. The circumstances were different — Waukesha’s groundwater was contaminated by radium, and the request involved building a pipeline that would withdraw 8.2 million gallons of water per day and then replace it with treated wastewater.

But even that request proved controversial. The water involved was intended primarily for residential use, but the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative — a coalition of 131 Canada and U.S. mayors — warned that the case might set a dangerous precedent. An editorial in the Toronto Star expressed concern that “If water levels in the lakes get drawn down, 90 per cent of the population of Ontario — not to mention 40 per cent of Canada's economic activity — could be affected.”

Certainly, the volumes of the diversions are so small compared to the size of the lakes that this is not likely to happen with just one diversion. But if Foxconn is permitted to take Great Lakes water, it will be much easier for other companies to do the same in the future.

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