Great Lakes Compact

The Great Lakes Compact is an agreement among the eight U.S. states in the Great Lakes Basin regarding how to use and manage the Basin’s water supply. It was signed into law in each state and province and by the federal government in 2008. An agreement was also drafted to include Ontario and Quebec in the management and protection of the basin’s resources.

The Compact aims to protect the Great Lakes against impacts from things like changes to water flows, water quality and diversions of water away from the Great Lakes Basin.

The Compact recognizes that the Great Lakes are a shared resource of which all the states are stewards. As a result, the Compact emphasizes regional cooperation to manage all the lakes as a single ecosystem.

Key Points

  • The Great Lakes are the backbone of the upper Midwest’s economy, supporting major industries like agriculture and manufacturing by providing shipping lanes and easy access to abundant water.
  • Over 1.5 million jobs in the Great Lakes region, generating $62 million annually in wages, are connected to the lakes.[1]
  • The Great Lakes Compact is a historic agreement that prevents Great Lakes water from being sold to the highest bidder.
  • More than 50% of Wisconsinites live in the Great Lakes Basin.
Clean Wisconsin's Work

In 2001, Clean Wisconsin began the fight for the Great Lakes Compact. After years of hard work by us and many partners across the state, including an amazing grassroots turnout that showed just how important these lakes are to everyday Wisconsinites, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the agreement in the spring of 2008, helping spur other states to do the same. The Compact and the coordinated regional management of this globally important resource that it stands for became a reality when it was signed by President Bush on October 3, 2008.
While the signing of the Compact represents an enormous environmental victory, the work of protecting the water in the Great Lakes is not over. Clean Wisconsin is now working diligently to make sure that the Compact is properly implemented and enforced, both in Wisconsin and across the basin. One example of how our work to properly implement the Compact is taking shape is our effort to work with the City of Waukesha and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Waukesha’s precedent-setting application under the Compact for a diversion to a community that lies wholly outside of the Basin but within a straddling county. The Compact makes provisions for a community of this kind to apply for a diversion if it meets a long list of criteria, most notably that its locally available supplies of water are not safe nor sustainable and that it lacks any reasonable alternatives short of a diversion. For more details on this important effort, see our Waukesha Water Diversion page.

Clean Wisconsin Media and Materials

Questions and Answers

What is the goal of the Great Lakes Compact?
The goal of the Great Lakes Compact is to minimize impacts on the Great Lakes from changes to water flow, quality and quantity by limiting diversions and regionally managing the lakes as a whole system.[2]
The eight Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) agreed to adopt water-conservation plans and generally prohibit diversions of water to areas outside of the Great Lakes Basin. They also agreed to abide by specific rules for diversions of Great Lakes water to communities straddling the Basin divide, as well as rules about diversions, under very special circumstances, to areas immediately outside of the Basin.

What is a water basin/watershed?
A lake or river basin (or watershed) is an area of land that drains into a common waterway such as a lake or river. All the water moving through a watershed, including rainfall or snowmelt that runs across the land’s surface, and the water moving underground toward low spots in the landscape, flows to the same place. For example, any water falling into the Great Lakes Basin will eventually end up in one of the Great Lakes, and then move through the St. Lawrence River system as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean along Canada’s east coast.[3] The words basin and watershed are essentially interchangeable, although basin is often used to refer to large continental or regional-scale river/lake systems such as the Mississippi River Basin or the Great Lakes Basin, whereas watershed is more often used to refer to smaller geographic areas draining into local rivers or lakes.

What do diversion and consumptive use mean?
A diversion is when water is transferred from one watershed or basin to another through some manmade effort or structure. Diversions can provide municipalities or other users with water supplies, irrigation and/or shipping infrastructure through the use of canals. Water that is diverted does not necessarily make its way back to the watershed from which it is taken.
The term consumptive use refers to water that is not returned to its basin because it evaporates; is incorporated into products, crops or plants, is consumed by humans or livestock, or is otherwise lost.[4]

What are some of the main provisions of the Great Lakes Compact?
The Great Lakes Compact details how the involved states and provinces must manage and protect water in the basin and provides a framework for enacting state laws and regulations. Key provisions include:[5]Economic development will be fostered through the sustainable use and responsible management of basin waters.
There will be a ban on new diversions of water from the basin. Limited exceptions may be allowed, such as for public water supply purposes in communities near the basin, but exceptions would be strictly regulated and would have to meet strict standards.
The states and provinces will use a consistent standard to review proposed uses of basin water.
Regional goals and objectives for water conservation and efficiency will be developed, and they will be reviewed every five years. Each state and province will develop and implement a water conservation and efficiency program.
The collection of technical data will be strengthened, and the states and provinces will share the information, which will improve collective and individual decision-making by the governments.
There is a strong commitment to continued public involvement in the implementation of the Compact and bi-national agreement.

What is the bottled water loophole?
An exception in the Great Lakes Compact allows for water to be diverted from the Great Lakes Basin provided it is held in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons. This includes water bottled in the Great Lakes Basin, and many worry that bottling companies will slowly package and ship Great Lakes water in bottles to potentially far-flung places.[6] The Compact, however, grants states the right to set their own restrictions and limits on diversions.

Who can apply for a water diversion under the Great Lakes Compact?
Communities that are “straddling communities” or “communities within a straddling county” can qualify for a diversion for public water supply under the compact. A straddling community is a town, city, or village that lies partly within the Great Lakes Basin. A community within a straddling county is a town, city or village that lies entirely outside of the basin, but wholly within a straddling county.These communities would be allowed to obtain a diversion of basin water provided they meet certain strict criteria.[2] Waukesha is a community within a straddling county, because it is located outside the Great Lakes Basin but is entirely within Waukesha County, which straddles the divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.

Quick Facts
  • The Great Lakes hold roughly one-fifth of the world’s and nearly 90% of North America’s fresh surface water.[2] Only the polar ice caps contain more freshwater.[7]
  • The Great Lakes Basin provides drinking water for over 40 million people and provides 56 billion gallons of water per day for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses.[8]
  • The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River system enables 200 million tons of cargo to be shipped annually (a $3 billion industry in itself), supports a $4 billion commercial/sport fishery, and drives 60% of U.S. manufacturing and 30% of U.S. agriculture.[6]
  • About 10% of the U.S. population and 31% of the Canadian population live within the Great Lakes Basin.[9]
  • One-third of the area and roughly half of the population of Wisconsin is located within the Great Lakes Basin; specifically, the Lake Superior and Lake Michigan basins.[10]
  • In Wisconsin, more than 20 companies are licensed to bottle water; sources for nearly half of these operations are within the Great Lakes watershed.[11]
  • 98% of water withdrawals from the Great Lakes basin in Wisconsin were from the Lake Michigan watershed while only 2% were from the Lake Superior watershed.[4] Total Wisconsin withdrawals from the Great Lakes Basin were 5,976.10 million gallons/day (mgd); 5,899.85 mgd from Lake Michigan (98.7% of the total) and 76.16 mgd from Lake Superior.[12]
  • Consumptive uses from Wisconsin’s portion of the basin were calculated to be 185.66 million gallons/day.[12]
Wisconsin Data, Trends, and Legislation

With nearly one-third of the state located within the Great Lakes Basin, the Great Lakes Compact has had a sweeping effect on water management in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has been a leader in implementing the terms of the Compact by enacting a statewide water conservation and water use efficiency program (embodied in our Natural Resources Administrative Rule, NR 852) and by being one of the first states to comply with the Compact’s directives on water use management and tracking, a critical requirement that brings about the data collection necessary to allow for long-term sustainable management of this incredible resource.

The mission of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is to “sustainably manage the quantity and quality of water in the state to ensure that water is available to be used to protect and improve our health, economy and environment now and in the future.” Wisconsin’s goals as part of the Great Lakes Compact include:[13]

  1. Ensuring improvement of the waters and water dependent natural resources.
  2. Protecting and restoring hydrologic and ecosystem integrity.
  3. Retaining the quantity of surface water and groundwater.
  4. Ensuring sustainable use of waters.
  5. Promoting the efficiency of use and reducing losses and waste of water.

Diversions in Wisconsin:

  • Waukesha Diversion. The city of Waukesha has applied for a diversion of Lake Michigan water to be used to meet quality and quantity needs for that community. Waukesha seeks to eventually divert an annual average of 10.9 million gallons of water per day with a maximum diversion of 18.5 million gallons per day. The water is proposed to serve an area that includes the City of Waukesha and may serve portions of Pewaukee and the towns of Genesee, Waukesha and Delafield.[14] See the Wisconsin DNR’s Waukesha Water Diversion page for more information.
  • New Berlin Diversion. In 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a maximum diversion amount of 2.142 million gallons per day averaged over a calendar year for the City of New Berlin, part of which lies in the Great Lakes Basin and part of which lies outside. The City will continue to return water to the Lake Michigan Basin via the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District resulting in no net loss of water from the Great Lakes Basin.[15]

Current Law in Wisconsin

  • NR 852, Water Conservation and Water Use Efficiency: The rule clarifies and further defines requirements for water conservation and water use efficiency for water withdrawals within the Great Lakes Basin, diversions of water from the Great Lakes Basin, and water withdrawals statewide with high (>2 million gallons per day) water loss/consumptive use.
  • NR 856, Water Use Registration and Reporting: The rule provides specific processes and methods for measuring, registering, and reporting withdrawals and diversions from the Great Lakes Basin.
  • NR 850, Water Use Fees: State statutes set a base fee of $125 annually for anyone with a water supply system (e.g. well or surface water withdrawal) with the capacity to withdraw an average of 100,000 gallons per day in any 30–day period. The rule implements an additional Great Lakes basin–specific fee for persons who withdraw more than 50 million gallons of water per year.[15]

Proposed Legislation

There is no currently proposed or pending legislation affecting the Great Lakes Compact in Wisconsin.

Cited Resources
  1. Michigan Sea Grant (2011). “The Great Lakes, Vital to our Nation’s Economy and Environment.” MICHU-11-708.
  2. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (2009). “Our Waters – The Great Lakes Compact.”
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2013). “EPA Water: Watersheds.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  4. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (2006). “Our Waters – Great Lakes Water Balance.”
  5. Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Regional Body (2007). “GLSLRB Agreements.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  6. Tamara Jackson (2008). “Great Lakes Compact Signed Into Law.” The Lake Connection. Wisconsin Association of Lakes.
  7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2012). “Basic Information | Great Lakes | US EPA.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  8. Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (n.d.). “About Our Great Lakes: Great Lakes Basin Facts.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  9. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2013). “Water conservation and efficiency.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  10. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2008). “Implementing the Compact in Wisconsin.”
  11. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (2008). “Our Waters – Diversions of Great Lakes Water.”
  12. Rebecca Pearson (2010). “Annual Report of the Great Lakes Regional Water Use Database – Representing 2008 Water Use Data.” Great Lakes Commission.
  13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2012). “Great Lakes – Great Lakes Fact Sheet.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  14. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2013). “City of Waukesha Water Diversion Application.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from
  15. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2013). “City of New Berlin water diversion approval.” Web. Retrieved 2013 from


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Please cite this resource as: Clean Wisconsin, Inc. “Great Lakes Compact.” Clean Wisconsin Enviropedia. Retrieved from