Why a water-gulping Wisconsin plant is a wake-up call for Canada

Environmentalists are concerned about Foxconn's proposed industrial plant that would suck nearly 22 million litres of water from Lake Michigan per day. They argue that it could contravene the Great Lakes Compact, while one expert says Canada should be worried.
A proposed plant would suck almost 22 million litres of water out of Lake Michigan every day, and not all of it could be returned. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)
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Canadians should be worried about the ecological impact of an enormous industrial plant planned for Wisconsin, a leading voice on water conservation says.

Bob Sandford, the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, warned that while Canada seems to enjoy an abundance of water resources, the supply isn't limitless and needs to be protected.

"It's only a matter of time before you end up with serious tension — if not conflict — over water," he told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

The plant, proposed by Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn, would take nearly 22 million litres of water from Lake Michigan per day. Much of that water would be treated and returned to the lake, but not all of it.

The Foxconn complex in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The Wisconsin plant would primarily manufacture LCD panels. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Environmentalists argue it would contravene the Great Lakes Compact signed by the lakes' eight neighbouring U.S. states along with Ontario and Quebec. They say the compact was created to guard against just this kind of large-scale industrial water diversion.

"Nearly 40 per cent of the water that would be pumped out of Lake Michigan every day would not be able to return back due to evaporative losses," said Ezra Meyer, a water resources specialist at the environmental group Clean Wisconsin.

He said the group isn't outright opposed to the plan, but wants to make sure concerns are addressed, in particular that water returned to the lake is clean.

Cory Mason, the mayor of Racine, Wis., said the $10-billion plant represents 11,000 construction jobs, and will employ another 13,000 people when up and running. It will primarily manufacture LCD panels.

"It's the biggest economic news, literally, for this community in a half century," he said.

"The opportunity to get people back to work — to family-supporting wages — is a very important consideration in this."

Lake Michigan, with Chicago in the background. Canada and the U.S. have an exemplary co-operative relationship on water, said Bob Sandford, but it's now at risk. (Jim Young/Reuters)

How concerned should Canada be?

Sandford said that the impact could be significant.   

"We're in a period right now [where] the historically exemplary relations between Canada and the United States over shared waters could go backwards rather than forwards."

The rest of the world would "give their eyeteeth to have the legacy of the co-operative collaboration" that Canada and the U.S. is neglecting to develop, he said.

When the federal government relinquished control of water to the provinces and territories, he said, Canada ended up "with 13 different atomized systems for managing water."

"Each [is] a different expression of local self-interest and this doesn't always result in decisions that serve the larger common good."

Sandford argued that before we do anything about the U.S., Canada should explore a national water strategy similar to the one adopted by the Northwest Territories.

"We need to get our house in order before we can worry about the growing needs of our increasingly thirsty neighbours."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, John Chipman and Bethlehem Mariam.

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