Faith, Water, and Law: analyzing Lake Michigan water diversion through a Catholic and environmental perspective

Grace Akin
College of Arts and Letters
Faculty Advisor
Terrence Ehrman
Class Year


watershed during sunset
Photo courtesy of Grace Akin

The Great Lakes are an incredibly valuable freshwater resource that the region will continue to become increasingly reliant upon as water scarcity due to climate change progresses. My capstone project researched the existing framework of water law that dictates the use of Great Lakes water in order to contextualize and evaluate the case study of the Waukesha, Wisconsin diversion. In addition to considering the ecological and legal ramifications of water diversions, I considered the ethics of water diversions by drawing upon Catholic social teaching and eco-theology to balance both the sanctity of water and the fundamental needs of humans.


Freshwater is a critical resource that is becoming increasingly more precious due to pollution and the impact of climate change. The Great Lakes account for more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater; they are both highly sought after and highly protected due to their importance. Current legal agreements limit water use of the Great Lakes to within the Great Lakes watershed with few exceptions. The Waukesha, Wisconsin, water diversion, which took over a decade to be approved, is one instance of an accepted water diversion due to radium contaminated local groundwater. My capstone project will explore the current legal framework for water diversions in the Great Lakes, the ecological perspective of conserving the Great Lakes, and the Catholic theology behind the ethical implications of both protecting the sanctity of water and providing human beings with their fundamental needs. I will then use these perspectives through which to analyze the Waukesha diversion specifically and offer insight into future applications for diversions by balancing environmental and human needs.