The Great Lakes Water Wars, by Peter Annin | wisconsinacademy.org
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The Great Lakes Water Wars, by Peter Annin

Reviewed by Dave Cieslewicz

According to Peter Annin, the future is all about water. And here in Wisconsin, we’ve got it. The problem is: The rest of the world wants it. In a newly revised and expanded edition of The Great Lakes Water Wars, which was first released in 2006, Annin has written what might be the most significant book for anyone who wants to understand the economic promise of the Upper Midwest.

Currently Co-Director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Annin is a seasoned ecologist and an impressive journalist of the old-school kind. For over a decade as a general assignment reporter for Newsweek he covered major American events such as the Branch Davidian standoff at Waco in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. 

On a breezy, unseasonably warm evening in October 2018, Annin spoke to a hundred or so people (including me) at his book launch in Milwaukee’s Discovery World Science and Technology Museum, which is surrounded on three sides by Lake Michigan. He assured us that the lake behind him would not disappear any time soon. Although, as he points out in The Great Lakes Water Wars, a body of water about the same size as Lake Michigan has already all but gone away. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. Today it is 90% smaller than it was in the 1950s when Soviet engineers began tapping it to irrigate arid agricultural fields. 

Annin started his talk at Discovery World just as he begins his book: with this cautionary tale of environmental disaster. It’s not that he believes that the Great Lakes will literally go away. Rather, his point is that when a body of water as large as the Aral can be all but destroyed by human folly in only a few short decades, it should shock us into the recognition that seemingly endless natural resources are just that—only seeming in their endlessness. 

In The Great Lakes Water Wars, Annin paints a disturbing picture of an increasingly thirsty world in which natural systems are manipulated to permit rapid growth in places simply too dry to support this growth. When we layer on the impacts of global climate change, the picture becomes even darker. 

It makes sense that those looking for more water will cast a longing eye on the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of all the fresh surface water on the planet. Annin tells the stories of various unsuccessful attempts to siphon off Great Lakes water to other parts of the country or even the world, the most audacious of which was by a Canadian businessman who proposed—and in 1998 got initial approval from the Canadian government—to ship Lake Superior water via tanker to Asia. The idea generated so much backlash that it resulted in the Great Lakes Compact, a binding and bipartisan agreement involving eight American states (including Wisconsin) and two Canadian provinces. Approved in 2008, the Compact essentially makes it impossible to take water out of the Great Lakes basin without the unanimous approval of all ten of those entities.

Of course, there are exceptions to the Compact, and therein lies the ongoing story and the timeliness of Annin’s revised edition of The Great Lakes Water Wars. One thing that’s changed in the decade between editions is that southeast Wisconsin has become, according to Annin, “water-diversion row” due to a series of commercial and municipal entities looking to remove large amounts of freshwater from Lake Michigan. He writes that this relatively small region of the big basin has “more contemporary water-diversion hotspots than all other Great Lakes states and provinces combined,” with battles surrounding diversion requests by Pleasant Prairie, New Berlin, the City of Waukesha, and the high-profile Foxconn plant in Racine County. 

Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer Foxconn promises to locate as many as 13,000 jobs at its plant, and supporters estimate that it could add $51 billion to Wisconsin’s gross domestic product over the next fifteen years. Annin notes that despite receiving over $4 billion in state and local subsidies to locate in Wisconsin, Foxconn came here because of the water. “The company wanted to be close to ground transportation corridors, major airports, potential employees from either side of the Illinois border … and the abundant waters of Lake Michigan,” he writes, as fresh water is an essential resource in the production of LCD screens.  

The battles surrounding Foxconn and all of these other water-diversion hotspots involve one of two provisions in the Compact, which were designed to make it more palatable to communities that are on or near the basin line. The first provision addresses straddling counties such as Waukesha County that are partially inside and partially outside of the basin. Municipalities such as the City of Waukesha that are located outside of the basin but within one of these straddling counties can be allowed to tap into Great Lakes water. The catch is that they can do so only with the unanimous approval of the eight governors and two premiers who agreed to the Compact. After a long battle, the City of Waukesha received diversion approval in 2016. 

The other provision relates to straddling communities. These are places like the Village of Mount Pleasant, where Foxconn chose to locate its plant, that are located partly within the basin and partly without. The Compact requires only that straddling communities acquire diversion approval from their respective states—a boon for companies such as Foxconn. However, Annin points out that Foxconn (for some odd reason) chose to locate their plant, as large as three Pentagons, directly on top of the basin line instead of a few hundred yards to the east where no Compact issues would arise. 

But the proposed plant is where it is, and that has created controversy to the extent that it will be the first diversion case that is litigated in the courts. The legal question revolves around a provision in the Compact that allows diversions outside of the basin only to meet the needs of residential users. The argument will be that allowing a diversion for a corporation like Foxconn wouldn’t constitute residential use.  

And while the actual amount of water Foxconn now says it wants to use—around 2.5 million gallons per day—is a drop in the bucket, Annin told me in an interview that what’s at stake is the overall integrity of the Compact. “If you start skirting your rules, then you could jeopardize the Compact itself,” he said. 

The larger significance of Foxconn may be that it is one of the first large-scale examples of a business locating in the Upper Midwest primarily because of access to water. And that’s no mistake. Annin writes, “Certainly, a key driving force behind the Compact was to bring jobs to the water, rather than send water to jobs someplace else.” In fact, Michigan’s governor at the time the Compact was signed coined a phrase to describe it: the Blue Economy. 

But the prosperity of the Blue Economy may not be inevitable. While Annin assures us that large-scale diversions outside of our region are all but impossible as long as the Compact is in place, the last few years of national and international politics have taught us that no institution is absolutely secure. Indeed, in his epilogue he quotes a Nevada official who says, “They’ve [the Great Lakes states]
got 14% of the population of the United States and 20% of the fresh water in the world—and no one can use it but them? It’s nuts!”

Annin quotes environmentalists and scientists who point out that the Great Lakes have no water to spare because the entire aquatic ecosystem has evolved around clean and abundant fresh water. Indeed, even though the diversions that are allowed to occur in communities straddling the basin represent a tiny fraction of all the water in the lakes, the diversion agreements require that most of that water must be treated and returned to the basin after use. 

Future Great Lakes water wars may come down to this: Will we insist that the people, the jobs, and the investment that must follow water come here to get it? Or will those wanting our water find a way to breach the basin line to allow Great Lakes water to flow to them so that they can remain in places that would otherwise be unsustainable? It could be the most important question local economic development professionals, public officials, and environmental advocates need to understand—and Annin has done an exceptional job of helping them explore it. 

Readers will be struck by how thoroughly Annin keeps himself and his own views out of the story. He lets the reporting take his readers wherever they will go so that they reach their own conclusions with even more resolve. And it’s resolve that may be needed to fulfill the bright promise of the Upper Midwest, so well stocked with one thing all the world needs: clean, abundant water.

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Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison-based writer. He blogs as “Citizen Dave” on the website of the Madison weekly Isthmus, and he is currently working on a book about the advantages of relative climate change security and ample fresh water resources enjoyed by the Upper Midwest. Cieslewicz served as mayor of Madison from 2003 until 2011.

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