Great Lakes Water Wars

With large sections of the American West and South suffering through drought, some politicians and water managers are viewing the Great Lakes as the natural-resource equivalent of a fat pension fund, a “tappable” resource which could help in the near-term at the expense of future generations and regional communities. As a recent article from the Chicago Tribune notes:,

“…potentially huge battles over water are looming in the Great Lakes region as cities, towns and states near and far fight for access to the world’s largest body of fresh surface water, all of it residing in the five Great Lakes.

Call them water wars, with the Great Lakes states hunkering down to protect what they see as theirs.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate for president, gave voice to his water lust early this month by suggesting that water from the Great Lakes could be piped to the rapidly growing — and increasingly dry — Southwestern states.

“States like Wisconsin are awash in water,” Richardson told the Las Vegas Sun.

Richardson soon backed off after swift protests from the Midwest, including a resounding “No” from Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

That won’t be the end of it. The fires in Southern California, the prolonged drought in the Southeast and the shrinking flow of the Colorado River, which feeds seven Western states, have underscored the importance of water supplies in rapidly developing regions and the determination of a handful of states to hold on to a resource they see as key to their economic future.

“….You’re going to see increasing pressure to gain access to this [water] supply,” said Aaron Packman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “Clearly it’s a case of different regional interests competing for this water.”

Eight Great Lakes-area states, from Minnesota to New York, and two Canadian provinces have proposed a regional water compact that would, among other things, strengthen an existing ban on major water diversions outside the Great Lakes Basin, home to 40 million Americans and Canadians. That proposal still has to work its way through several legislatures, and then it must go to Congress, where the political balance of power has been tilting west and south for decades.

….But there also are smaller but no less significant frictions among the states trying to protect the water, notably in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, which wants to pipe Lake Michigan water into its community because its drinking water wells show high levels of cancer-causing radium. The Waukesha conflict stems from the city’s being outside the vast Great Lakes Basin, which means the Lake Michigan water it would use would not be returned to the lake; it would be lost, draining into the Fox River and ultimately down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Waukesha is a small but important example of the potential precedent-setting nature of diverting water to a city or state outside the Great Lakes Basin.

“There’s a concern that the thirsty in the Great Lakes region will set the precedent locally, even though they may be 5 or 10 miles outside the basin. But 20, 30 or 50 years from now, that precedent could be used to send water to far-flung reaches of the continent,” said Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”

“If you make the exception at 15 miles, what about 30 or 50 or 500 miles? That’s the fear,” Annin said….”

This entry was posted on Friday, November 9th, 2007 at 4:45 am and is filed under Great Lakes, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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