Protecting the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are a breathtaking and unique natural resource. They are the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystem and contain 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet. More than 35 million people in eight states and Canada depend on the Lakes for their drinking water.

The Great Lakes watershed provides habitat for wildlife, including the gray wolf, Canada lynx, and the millions of migratory birds that pass through in the spring and fall. The five lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—are home to numerous fish such as walleye, whitefish, trout, and lake sturgeon. In spite of their majesty, the Great Lakes are fragile and face serious threats from invasive species, toxins, water diversion, wetland destruction, sewage overflows, and climate change.

Sulfide Mining and the Great Lakes

Mining and exploration companies are swarming the upper Great Lakes, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin and the arrowhead region of northern Minnesota.

Lake Superior is in the bull’s eye. Mining companies are seeking—and finding—deposits of minerals including copper, nickel, gold and other metals. This mining rush must be checked to protect Lake Superior and it's tributaries. In addition to state agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must step-up its oversight and protect the Great Lakes from the exceptional risks of sulfide mining.

Sulfide Mining Threat to Lake Superior

The threat of sulfide mining looms across the Upper Peninsula's backwoods. The proposed Copperwood Mine beside the Porcupine State Park plans to leave a huge mine waste tailings pond just feet away from Lake Superior and its tributaries, yet the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has issued preliminary approval. HudBay’s Back Forty project on the Menominee River is expected to submit applications any day. Rio Tinto has started constructing its Eagle Mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where it will seriously harm wildlife and natural areas in the Great Lakes basin.

Watch our award-winning documentary film, "Mining Madness, Water Wars: Great Lakes in the Balance" to see the story of people and wildlife in the Lake Superior basin under threat from the Rio Tinto mine.

Failure of Region's Laws on Sulfide Mining

The Eagle Mine was the first test of new Michigan laws governing sulfide mining, and so far, the State of Michigan has failed.

Despite voluminous expert testimony stating the danger of the sulfide mine to people, wildlife and natural areas, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued Kennecott Eagle Minerals permits in 2007 to perform sulfide mining on the public lands National Wildlife Federation and its partners now await a decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals where they have sought leave to appeal.

Mining Companies Lobby for Lax Rules Amidst Contamination

In Wisconsin, the closed Flambeau Mine site is causing contamination in a stream and intense industry pressure there is prompting efforts at weakening the state’s mining laws. In Minnesota, several mines are on the drawing board with one huge open pit mine, the NorthMet Mine, having proceeded through a significant portion of the permitting process. Like Wisconsin, the mining industry in Minnesota is lobbying continually for more industry-friendly laws.

The history of sulfide mining is rife with contamination, Harmful acid mine drainage is an inescapable byproduct of sulfide mining and results in miles of decimated streams and rivers. The Great Lakes region must carefully protect its most precious resource, fresh water. We hope you will join and support our efforts.

Great Lakes Water Resources Compact

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is a historic agreement among the eight Great Lakes states to protect Great Lakes water. The Compact, which came into force on December 8, 2008, protects wildlife and habitat from water diversions from the Great Lakes basin and promotes sound water management within the basin.

The Compact offers extensive protections to Great Lakes water because it treats groundwater, surface water and Great Lakes tributaries as a single ecosystem. An agreement among the Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec (the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement) helps the U.S. and Canada work together on protecting the Great Lakes.

The National Wildlife Federation led efforts to negotiate and pass the Great Lakes Compact.

Water Withdrawals Threaten the Great Lakes

Removing water from the Great Lakes basin can put fish and wildlife at risk by damaging habitat and degrading water quality. Predicted lower Great Lakes water levels due to climate change and increased water use are looming threats to the Great Lakes. While the Great Lakes are large, they are very fragile. Less than 1% of Great Lakes water is renewed annually through rainfall and snowmelt.

Three years after the Great Lakes Compact became effective, progress on implementation continues to move slowly. All of the Great Lakes states have created water withdrawal permitting programs, and some are notable successes, while others need improvement. See how states across the Basin are managing water under the Great Lakes Compact (PDF).

The Compact Protects the Great Lakes from Diversions

The Compact requires anyone outside the basin who wants to use Great Lakes water to meet strict criteria. The Compact specifies that the states and the Compact Council must review any new diversions of Great Lakes water. Misuse of water within the Great Lakes basin poses a threat to fish and wildlife habitat just as diversions of water outside of the basin do. The Compact requires states to implement water conservation and management plans to protect Great Lakes water.

Putting the Great Lakes Compact to Use

The Compact is a powerful tool to protect the Great Lakes. Each state must meet the requirements of the Compact, however much work remains to ensure that the states fulfill their responsibilities. The National Wildlife Federation leads an ongoing campaign to see that the Compact is strictly enforced. As a key leader of the Compact Agreement Coalition of environmental and conservation groups across the Great Lakes basin, the National Wildlife Federation:

The first major test of the Great Lakes Compact

A request to divert water outside of the Great Lakes basin by the City of Waukesha, WI, is currently under review by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The outcome of this application will set a precedent for future diversion requests. The National Wildlife Federation is working with its partners to ensure that this application and all other requests for Great Lakes water meet the strict criteria set out by the Compact.

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Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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Regional Centers and Affiliates