The Battles That Shaped Great Lakes Water Politics

University Place: How The Contemporary Boundaries Of An Abundant Resource Were Forged In Controversy
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Illustration based on photo of billboard by Citizens for Michigan's Future
An 2001 billboard placed in Michigan featured offensive caricatures representing Texas, Utah, California and New Mexico to illustrate concerns about pumping Great Lakes water to the American West.

Two centuries of urbanization and industrialization around the Great Lakes have often hinged on tension among those who've desired their extraordinary supplies of fresh water. The lakes and the surrounding watershed contain nearly one-fifth of the surface freshwater on earth, and currently about 40 million people in the United States and Canada use their waters. The eight Great Lakes states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec collectively form a $4.7 trillion economy, the fourth-largest in the world. It's no wonder that people across North America and around the globe want in on that water.

The Great Lakes states and provinces rely on a binational agreement to try and keep Great Lakes water in the region. Stateside, that agreement takes the form of the legally binding Great Lakes Compact, which went into effect in 2008 and relies for enforcement on both state governments and a regional body comprised of the eight Great Lakes governors. With a few specific exceptions, the Compact bars public utilities or private interests from taking Great Lakes water out of the lakes' hydrologic drainage basin — a process known as diversion. That limit is in place because people within the region are all too aware of how attractive that water, and the opportunity it represents, are to others who live outside of it. A series of controversies over the past 200 years or so have driven that reality home.

The lust for Great Lakes water is only going to come from more corners over the next several decades, as journalist Peter Annin explained in an Oct. 22, 2015 talk at Monona Terrace in Madison. Co-director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, he is the author of the 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars which, along with Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Dan Egan's 2017 book The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes, is one of the seminal texts on the lakes' political and environmental history.

The talk, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, came as the city of Waukesha was in the midst of its ultimately successful bid to tap into Lake Michigan for its drinking water supply. Because Waukesha is located entirely outside the Great Lakes Basin but inside a county that straddles its border, the city's request was an important test for a provision of the Compact that allows such communities to use the water, dependent on unanimous approval from all eight regional governors. The request, approved in June 2016 has proven to be the most controversial Great Lakes water issue of the decade so far, rivaled only by Swiss corporation Nestlé's bottled-water operations in Michigan and Taiwan-based electronics manufacture Foxconn's interest in sourcing Lake Michigan to supply an in-the-works factory in southeastern Wisconsin.

Annin touched briefly on the Waukesha diversion in his talk, but mostly focused on how bold moves by both public and industrial entities have shaped Great Lakes water politics, and how the increasing instability of water resources around the U.S. and the world will shape those politics in the future.

"The Great Lakes region, the North American continent and the entire world are all entering a period of increased water tension," Annin said. "Those tensions are primarily driven by water scarcity, and they're going to put increased pressure on water-rich regions of the world like the North American Great Lakes."

Key facts

  • In 2015, about 800 million people around the world lacked access to clean drinking water, and unhealthy water conditions kill two million per year, most of them children. And it may get far worse: the United Nations has projected that by 2025, two-thirds of the global population will suffer at least intermittent water shortages. The U.S. Department of the Interior has projected that by the same time, large swaths of the western United States have the potential to face water crises. (In March 2018, The Guardian reported on growing inequalities in water access around the world.)

  • The Colorado River watershed, a major source of drinking water for the western U.S., has become depleted because when states agreed on dividing up water rights in the 1920s, the region was experiencing larger than usual amounts of precipitation. Several other regional water crises and conflict have playing out around the U.S. in the 21st century, including ongoing suits between southeastern states over water rights in the Apalachicola River Basin.

  • Existing water tensions across North America, and the expectation that such disputes will only spread, tends to be the major factor informing debates over Great Lakes water resources.

  • Hatched in the mid-20th century, competing American and Canadian plans to build shipping canals around the continent would have both involved massive engineering projects to send Great Lakes water across the American West, possibly as far as northern Mexico and the Canadian prairies. Neither of these plans ever came to fruition.

  • Great Lakes water policy largely revolves around the geographic and hydrological boundary of the Great Lakes Basin. Within the Basin, rain and snowmelt and rivers and streams ultimately drain into the lakes themselves, and from there into the Atlantic Ocean. Outside of the basin line, water drains into other watersheds, including those of the Mississippi River and Hudson Bay.

  • Over the past 200 years, humans have created several diversions of water into, out of, and within the Great Lakes. Most are in the form of canals, but the most controversial is Chicago's Sanitary and Ship Canal, which opened in 1900 and reversed the flow of the Chicago River to move Lake Michigan water (and flush a lot of sewage) into the Mississippi River. This led to a court battle between the states of Illinois and Missouri, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided to allow the diversion. Called the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the diversion has lowered water levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron by 2.5 inches. It also provides a potential channel for invasive species to move from the Mississippi River Basin to the Great Lakes and vice versa.

  • In the late 1990s, the Canada-based Nova Group devised a plan to ship tankers of Lake Superior water to customers in Asia. The company's proposal sparked fierce political and environmental controversy because, while the plan by itself wouldn't have had much effect on Great Lakes water levels overall, permitting it would have set a precedent possibly allowing Great Lakes water to be shipped just about anywhere. The Nova Group eventually abandoned the proposal, and the episode inspired officials in both the U.S. and Canada to craft new policies guarding the lakes, which eventually led to the Great Lakes Compact.

Key quotes

  • On hot spots for water conflict in and around the Great Lakes Basin: "Note if you will how far the basin line is from the lakes' shoreline in some areas of the watershed, and how truly remarkably close the basin line is to the shoreline in other areas of the watershed. It's these areas where the basin line is closest to the shoreline where water tensions in the Great Lakes region are highest."

  • On putting the overall water resources of the lakes into perspective: "Only one percent of the water in the Great Lakes Basin is renewed annually through rainfall, snowfall and groundwater recharge. Just 1 percent. So, think of the lakes as a gift from the glaciers 10,000 years ago depositing this water bank account in the Great Lakes region. And then you have this 1 percent of water interest that flows through that bank account on an annual basis. And then, of course, the secret is that we're not consuming more than that 1 percent on an annual basis where then we'd have to dive into the principal of our water bank account. And scientists tell me we're not even close to consuming that water ... but that we could do a better job of accounting for that water at this crucial time in water history."

  • On getting used to fluctuations in Great Lakes water levels: "If you have a pier or if you're a marina operator ... or run an ore freighter business, those changing water levels can be a real frustration for humans. But it's important for us to realize that that's part of the natural system in the Great Lakes Basin. ... The low spots become heavily vegetated. And then those become important stopover points for neotropical migratory birds and waterfowl, et cetera. And then always, the water levels come back up, and that vegetation gets inundated. And that sort of bird nursery, then turns into a fish nursery. And that's part of the whole cycle."

  • On why ambitious mid-20th century plans for a canal system diverting water out of the Great Lakes didn't happen: "Huge engineering marvels, these plans, which happened to occur at a time of rising environmental consciousness in North America, also fiscal consciousness. These are hugely expensive projects. They had influential supporters, both the United States and Canada at the time. But ultimately, they fell under their own financial weight, their gargantuan-ness and also the controversy that occurred from the, you know, the environmental opposition to this. Nevertheless, these plans are out there. You can still find fans of them on the internet. And the concern is that, under a period of crisis or whatever, these sorts of things, or parts of these things, might be dusted off."

  • On the lasting impact of the Nova Group proposal: "This is a controversial Canadian diversion proposal from the last part of the last century. And that is the Nova proposal of 1998 out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. This was a plan to ship 158 million gallons of pristine Lake Superior water to Asia in tankers. The idea — this was an era before FIJI Water — the idea was to create a global market for Lake Superior water all over the world by shipping it all over the world. And they saw where bottled water was headed. And so this could not be stopped by anti-diversion laws in the United States or Canada at the time, and it became enormously controversial… With the water diversion controversy, it's all about precedent. It's all about legal precedent…. if you're talking about setting international precedent, if you can send Great Lakes water to Asia, the lawyers argued, where couldn't you send it?"

  • On the lessons of the Aral Sea: "In 1960, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest inland water body in the world. But starting in 1960, the Soviet Union embarked on a massive, collective, kind-of classic communist agricultural irrigation program to make the desert bloom in Central Asia. ... So they tapped into the large rivers that fed the Aral Sea and then sent that fresh water through a far-flung collection of irrigation canals and pipelines, again, to make the desert bloom. And the desert did bloom, but at great cost to the Aral Sea's ecosystem … In 1960, there was a teeming fishery here, ferry boats taking people to Kazakhstan, back to Uzbekistan, fishing trawlers passing overhead, 40-50 feet depth of water. Now, today, all directions of the compass, as far as the eye can see, no water. As a Great Lakes guy, it was a very chilling place to visit. So the farmer's gain was the fisherman's loss."

  • On the potential human threat to the Great Lakes: "I don't believe one can credibly stand on the shore of a North American Great Lake today and argue that these lakes are so vast and so massive that they're invincible. In fact, what the Aral Sea situation shows is that despite the magnitude, these large water bodies are indeed vulnerable to over-use."
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