Great Lakes states are so zealous about guarding their increasingly valuable natural resource from thirsty outsiders that all eight of the region's governors had to sign off before an inland Wisconsin city was allowed to siphon water out of Lake Michigan.
Less than a year after Waukesha secured permission to withdraw more than 7 million gallons a day from the lake, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group could end up winning access to a similar amount of fresh water for its new Wisconsin factory with merely a stroke of a pen from Gov. Scott Walker, the company's chief political sponsor.
Foxconn's bid for Lake Michigan water is the latest test of the decade-old Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among the region's states intended to make it almost impossible to direct water outside the natural basin of the Great Lakes unless it is added to certain products, such as beer and soft drinks.
At issue with both Waukesha and Foxconn is an exemption that allows limited diversions outside the basin for "a group of largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial and other institutional operators."
Waukesha, a city of 70,000 west of Milwaukee, lies fully outside the basin but is within a county that straddles the meandering subcontinental divide that separates areas of the Midwest that drain into the Great Lakes from those where water flows toward the Mississippi River. Foxconn's plant would be built on top of the divide.
As envisioned by the Walker administration, the water for Foxconn would come from Racine, an industrial city that would add the company to its larger base of residential customers, along with a small number of homes in Mount Pleasant, the community where the factory is to be located. Racine is entirely within the basin and has more than enough capacity from its existing allotment of water from the lake.
Lawyers, activists and politicians who drafted the compact are split on whether Foxconn's bid violates the spirit, if not the actual language, of the agreement, which they hammered out in 2008 after an Ontario firm unveiled plans to ship 158 million gallons a year from Lake Superior to Asia.
Though the proposal to fill an armada of supertankers with fresh water never came to pass, it shocked regional leaders who realized that arid, drought-ravaged nations and communities throughout the world might covet the Great Lakes as a potential solution to their water woes.
Some who were involved in the debate hoped the compact would discourage the use of Great Lakes water to fuel suburban growth outside the basin. Instead, the thinking went, access to the water should be limited to new industries and development in areas within the basin, such as Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and other older, urban cities ravaged by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
"Access to Great Lakes water is a contentious issue even within states, and we knew southeast Wisconsin would be one of the flashpoints," said Noah Hall, a Wayne State University law professor who focuses on environmental issues in the region. "We wanted to discourage sprawl, but we made political, perhaps arbitrary, compromises along the way."