The Domino Effect: Great Lakes Water Diversion

The term in this title was invented decades ago when the threat of world domination by Communist governments seemed real. Everyone has seen rows of dominoes lined one after another, sitting on end, each capable of tipping over, striking the next and starting a chain reaction on down the row. As the tipping, falling, striking continues, eventually, the whole row of dominoes would go down – the domino effect.

The theory, when it came to communism, was Chinese Communism would cause Korean Communism, then it would spread to Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos and other countries one after another, like rows of tipping dominoes.

There’s another Domino Effect playing out in the Great Lakes and the first of the dominos seems to have been tipped in Wisconsin. This time it’s not the Commies coming, it’s the water-grabbers; specifically, Great Lakes water grabbers.

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The eight states and two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes realized the water contained in “their” lakes was a valuable resource, a resource coveted by areas not blessed with vast, freshwater seas. I’ve seen plans afoot to pipe Great Lakes waters to the desert southwest to fill swimming pools in Arizona. Others would move Great Lakes water to irrigate the droughty prairies to grow more corn. I’ve seen plans to fill huge tanker ships with Great Lakes water and haul it to places around the world.

To protect the lakes, the owners of that water – specifically, the states and provinces bordering the lakes agreed among themselves – formally agreed with laws and treaties – to ban the diversion of Great Lakes water anywhere outside the area that naturally drains towards the lakes. I’m sure there were serious discussions involved, but in the end, the Great Lakes Compact was written, codified and is now the law of the land – or at least the law in the Great Lakes area.

Chicago, Gary, Cleveland and all the other cities around the lakes can use all the water they wish. Other cities, even some which are not all that distant from a Great Lakes lakeshore, are not so lucky. Lowell, Indiana wanted to use Lake Michigan water. Nope. The drains in Lowell flushes water towards the Kankakee River. Their request was denied.

Some states, particularly Michigan are blessed. Nearly all of Michigan is in the Great Lakes drainage area. Great Lakes water can be used almost anywhere in the Badger state. Is this fair? Is it fair peanuts grow better in Georgia than in Illinois?

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Over the ensuing years several other attempts, more blatant, cropped up in other Great Lakes states and provinces, but were quickly shot down. The Great Lakes Compact disallowing Great Lakes water diversions outside the basin held firm. Until the plight of Waukesha, Wisconsin cropped up.

Long story shortened – the city of Waukesha sits astride the divide separating the Great Lakes watershed and the Mississippi watershed. Waukesha’s public water supply came from wells. Then it was learned the water from Waukesha wells had excessive amounts of radium. It would be far less expensive to pump water out of Lake Michigan than to treat the well water or put down new wells.

Waukesha appealed to the Great Lakes Compact members to grant an exception for them to pump lake water to the western part of Waukesha. Yadda, yadda, lawyers, environmentalists, politicians, crying babies all got in on the act and despite assurances from all involved, the teeny (8.2 million gallons per day) diversion was approved as a one time exception.

“It wouldn’t happen again,” they said. It wasn’t precedent setting. Opponents argued the other way, but lost.

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Now, a few miles south of Waukesha near the Illinois/Wisconsin state line, the city of Racine, WI is making plans to send 7 million gpd of “their” Lake Michigan water to the nearby community of Mount Pleasant where a Taiwan based company is planning to build a 12,000 job factory to produce display screens for computerized devises. Like West Waukesha, Mount Pleasant lies outside the Great Lakes watershed.

While the lawyers, environmentalists, politicians and crying babies are queuing up to make their own noises, pro and con, construction crews are laying the water pipe lines. Are those involved playing us, playing the Great Lakes Compact or playing dominoes?

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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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