How likely is the fear the West could steal Great Lakes water?

June 21, 2011

By Lynette Kalsnes

(Flickr/Sarah Cady)
The Great Lakes are one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world.

Part of living in the Great Lakes, one of the richest sources of fresh water in the world, is living with a little undercurrent of worry that someone out West or around the world is coveting our water.

That fear isn’t based on nothing – there have been schemes floated out there to load water into tankers and ship it to Asia, and trial balloons floated over the years.

Consider Bill Richardson’s unsuccessful run for president:

“One of the famous moments of the 2008 campaign was Bill Richardson telling people in the Great Lakes we need a national water policy, which to any Great Laker is code for we’re going to take your water halfway across the country,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“To people in the Great Lakes region, suggesting that that water could be transferred to other parts of the continent is like someone suggesting that the Rocky Mountains could be transferred to other parts of the United States,” said Peter Annin, the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”

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But just how likely is Great Lakes water moving that far west?

Not very, according to Noah Hall, a law professor at Wayne State University who used to manage the Great Lakes Water Resources Program for the National Wildlife Federation.

For one thing, there’s an agreement between eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that prohibits diversions outside the Great Lakes basin. Congress passed it and so did the president.  As long as that compact stays in place, the Southwest and the rest of the world should be out of luck.

Hall says the cost of moving water that far west, and moving it uphill to boot, is too expensive to be possible anyway.

“As a general matter, the West is short of water because it’s a desert, and we’ve chosen to settle and live there as if it’s an eastern climate,” Hall said. “A large, thousand-mile diversion from the Great Lakes to another part of the country is the least affordable, practical and feasible way of meeting their water needs.”

He said the Southwest is already considering other more efficient, cheaper options like conservation, and recycling and reusing water. They’ll have to learn to live with what they have, he said, not look to the Great Lakes. That could mean people starting to move back to regions with more water, rather than trying to bring the water to them.

“The West is a dry region,” Hall said. “The reality is it’s never going to look as green as it is in Michigan. If you want green all around, you probably should live east of the 100 meridian.”

Annin agrees that right now, it’s too cost prohibitive to be a reality.

But, he says, “Particularly a lot of environmental advocates say, ‘Don’t judge this issue based on the economics of today -- we’re worried about the economics of tomorrow that catapult the value of water so high it could make sense to some economically to move Great Lakes water to far-flung venues’.”

Those advocates are concerned about what happens in the future, when climate change and exploding population counts are expected to make water scarcity an even bigger issue.

They’re also concerned about a more immediate threat to the lakes.  What happens if a lot of thirsty suburbs near the lakes that do qualify for diversions come calling and officials don’t set the bar high enough? That’s been likened to death by a thousand straws.

That’s what’s got attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin with Midwest Environmental Advocates concerned, especially about the first big test of the compact in a suburb of Milwaukee, Waukesha.

“If we as region don’t do a good job with this, not just as an application, but showing the worth of the compact, it may not be ours to keep,” she said. “It could be that the national government would identify the Great Lakes as a national resource if we don’t show that we can do a good job of taking care of it. The compact is that opportunity. We need to it be successful, we need to show it will work, and this application is our first way to show this off."