The Great Lakes Compact

The Great Lakes hold 90% of North America’s fresh surface water. But this water supply is not unlimited.

The Great Lakes hold nearly 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. And, more astonishingly, the lakes hold more than 90% of North America’s fresh surface water.

But this water supply is not unlimited. The Great Lakes are a one-time gift from the glaciers that melted in our region thousands of years ago. Less than 1 percent of the lakes’ water is renewed annually through rainfall and snowmelt. That means the Great Lakes can be depleted if we don’t keep Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes Basin.

The birth of the Great Lakes Compact

In 1998, an obscure Canadian consulting company, the Nova Group, announced its intention to ship 158 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia. Though that specific plan seemed unlikely to materialize, it raised alarms about the vulnerability of the Great Lakes in an increasingly hot and thirsty world. 

The Alliance for the Great Lakes (then the Lake Michigan Federation) and other lakes advocates began working tirelessly to persuade lawmakers and officials of the imminent threat, and craft policy to prevent diversions of Great Lakes water.

After years of effort, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was approved by all eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. Congress. President George W. Bush signed the Compact into law in 2008.

How the Compact protects the lakes

The Great Lakes Compact bans the diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin, with limited exceptions.

Only two situations allow a community located outside of the Great Lakes to apply for a diversion.

  1. A community that is located partially in the Great Lakes basin may apply for a diversion.
  2. A community that is located within a county that is partially in the basin may apply for a diversion.

Any community applying for a diversion must demonstrate that it has exhausted all available options for getting water. In other words, a diversion must be a last resort.

Any diversion application must be approved by all eight Great Lakes states. The two Canadian provinces bordering the lakes are allowed to provide input as well. Any state may veto a diversion application.

The Compact also requires each Great Lakes state to set up water management programs to ensure the water we have is used wisely.

The Compact’s first test case: Waukesha, Wisconsin

Waukesha, Wisconsin, is located a few miles west of Milwaukee. The city lies outside the Great Lakes Basin, but it’s in a county that is partially inside the basin. The city’s water supply is contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring carcinogen.

In 2016, Waukesha applied to the Compact Council to divert water from Lake Michigan. This launched the first major test of the Great Lakes Compact.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes and advocates across the region took action to ensure that the diversion wouldn’t be approved unless it met the strict requirements of the Compact. In response to criticism, the Compact Council required Waukesha to decrease the amount of its diversion, shrink the service area that would receive Lake Michigan water, and return all water diverted back to Lake Michigan via the Root River. 

On June 21, 2016, the eight Great Lakes states voted to approve Waukesha’s diversion request with significant restrictions. Among the most important conditions was a requirement that all water diverted from Lake Michigan to Waukesha must be returned. This results in a no net loss of water from the Great Lakes as required by the Compact.

Waukesha began supplying Lake Michigan water to its residents in October 2023. 

What’s next for the Great Lakes Compact?

The Great Lakes Compact is a testament to what the region can achieve when it works together. The lakes are vulnerable to misuse, and we should never take our water for granted. The Compact protects the Great Lakes from being depleted to address water issues in other parts of the country and the world.

In August 2024, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will provide the first report to the Regional Body and Compact Council on the City of Waukesha’s diversion. The Alliance for the Great Lakes will be watching closely. We expect the Compact Council, the Regional Body, and their members to ensure that Waukesha meets all the requirements of its diversion approval.

Ways you can help

Protecting the Great Lakes will take all of us. Here are several ways you can help. 

  • Build support for the Great Lakes Compact. Tell your friends and family why the Compact is so important, and how it keeps Great Lakes water in the lakes. You can start by sharing this page on social media or by email. 
  • Tell decision-makers to protect and restore the Great Lakes. The lakes face many other threats, from plastic pollution and invasive species to climate change and toxic algal blooms. Your voice can make a difference! Visit our action center and take action.
  • Volunteer to protect the lakes in your community. Adopt-a-Beach volunteers are on the front lines of keeping litter, most of it plastic, out of our lakes. Join an Adopt-a-Beach cleanup – or start one of your own. Or become an Alliance Ambassador, and we’ll train you to educate your community about threats to the Great Lakes and how everyone can help.