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The site of the planned Foxconn Technology Group manufacturing complex lies on a divide — the subcontinental divide.

The symbolism of this is not lost on those challenging an application to divert fresh water from Lake Michigan for the Foxconn operation in Mount Pleasant. The project — with its partisan favoritism, government giveaways and easing of regulations — has from the start divided Wisconsin. 

In exchange for more than $4 billion in subsidies at the state and local level and Republican permission to skirt certain state environmental regulations, the Taiwan-based company says it will invest $10 billion in a flat-screen factory complex in Mount Pleasant and employ up to 13,000 people.

But to do that, Foxconn needs water — up to 5.8 million gallons per day of Lake Michigan water.

The company, the village of Mount Pleasant, the city of Racine and Gov. Scott Walker suggest the only requirement for acquiring that water is simple authorization from the state.

Critics argue otherwise, saying the diversion — a total of 7 million gallons per day is being requested for Foxconn and other development — requires regional review involving the eight states and two Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

Dividing the two sides is their understanding of how the compact treats communities split by the subcontinental divide, as Mount Pleasant is.


Geography and the rules

The compact requires that those drawing water from the Great Lakes must return their treated wastewater back to the basin. 

Mount Pleasant lies partly in the Great Lakes Basin and partly in the Mississippi River Basin — and so will the Foxconn campus. Under the compact, any treated water could not be allowed to flow toward the Mississippi and away from the lake.

Racine maintains that diversion approval only needs to come from the state because the application is for a straddling community — and thus outside the regional decision-making rules of the compact.

Keith Haas, general manager of the Racine Water Utility, said, “This is a straddling community diversion request, not a request to withdraw more water from Lake Michigan. If approved, the diversion will have little if any impact on Lake Michigan water volume or quality.”

The request meets all the criteria identified in the compact, said Mount Village President David DeGroot.

Critics respond

But according to representatives with leading environmental groups in the state and the Great Lakes region, Racine’s arguments in its diversion application don’t hold water.

The compact contains narrowly defined exceptions for diverting water and “Racine falls short,” said attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin of the Midwest Environmental Advocates. The compact’s “integrity is on the line.”


Attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin of the Midwest Environmental Advocates: The Great Lakes Compact’s “integrity is on the line.”

At Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn said approval of the application would put cracks in the compact.

“We are concerned that if Racine can get this diversion to send water to Foxconn, it would set a negative precedent,” said the riverkeeper, who even challenges Racine’s standing as the applicant — a straddling community can apply for a diversion, but Racine, entirely in the Great Lakes Basin, isn’t a straddling community. “The way I read the compact, they are not eligible to apply.”

In Sturtevant March 7, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing on the application, bringing about 300 people to the SC Johnson Center. One report out of the hearing was headlined “Ocean of opinions,” but the opinions were largely unvaried, forming a wave against Racine’s request.

The point made by speaker after speaker: Approval by the state would violate the compact, which says diverted water must be for public use as opposed to private industrial use. 

Nenn said it’s obvious the diversion request is for a private foreign company. 

Imagine, she said, if every community in the basin with excess water capacity could divert water from the Great Lakes to businesses outside the basin line.

“If we allow this to happen, it’s going to happen all over the basin, with other states and then it’s going to be the thirsty states and nations to come,” warned Jennifer Giegerich of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.


Jennifer Giegerich of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters testifies at a hearing March 7 against Racine’s request to divert Lake Michigan water for Foxconn.


Racine’s rationale

In late January, the city of Racine submitted to the DNR its application to divert water from the Great Lakes to extend service to a 2.3 square mile area of Mount Pleasant, including the Foxconn site.

The DNR’s public comment period closed March 21, and a timetable indicates the state could decide on the application by early May.

Jenny Trick, executive director of the Racine County Economic Development Corporation, stated the diversion would benefit the entire region by supporting “broader I-94 corridor development, creating even more Racine County jobs, patrons and residents while protecting our area’s greatest natural resource.”

The city, in its application materials, set forth this case:

  • Since 2016, Racine has drawn under 17 million gallons per day — less than a third of the water it’s already authorized to take from Lake Michigan. 
  • Infrastructure exists to support the diversion.
  • A significant part of the Foxconn site is within the Great Lakes basin, “but the application takes a protective approach and assumes all usage falls outside the basin.”


Further concerns

The compact allows for some “consumptive use” — water that is drawn out but not returned to the lake. Racine’s application estimates consumption of about 2.7 million gallons per day and the return of 4.3 million gallons through Racine's wastewater treatment plant to the lake. 

Allison Werner of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, opposing the application, said, “The consumptive use of 40 percent is a large number.”

“The water of the Great Lakes is not an infinite resource,” said Louise Petering of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. 

When does consumptive use by a private company become so great that it has a negative impact on the Great Lakes? Nenn asked.

Also, critics say the application lacks details about what might be in the water that’s returned to the lake.

Foxconn, with its stained environmental record in China and Taiwan, has not provided enough details about chemicals, especially heavy metals, in wastewater and how it would handle sludge from factory operations.

“The application is incomplete and should not be approved,” said Karen Hobbs, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

The day of the public hearing, Foxconn issued a statement asserting, “environmental sustainability is a priority and that includes compliance with the Great Lakes Compact and Wisconsin’s laws, rules and permitting procedures relating to water quality and wastewater treatment.” But the statement didn’t ease concerns and neither did repeated government assurances the company would have to comply with any local, state and federal requirements for wastewater discharges.

Nenn told WiG she hopes the application draws attention from other Great Lakes states and she cited challenges developing on other issues.


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