National Treasure: Great Lakes Are Becoming a Highly Sought Source for Water
Six quadrillion gallons of water. That’s a 6 followed by 15 zeroes.
It’s how much water is in Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior — enough to cover an area the size of the lower 48 states to a depth of 91/2 feet.
And to a drought-stricken Southeast and perennially parched Southwest, it’s very tempting.
On the campaign trail in September, Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson suggested that water from the Great Lakes could be piped to Las Vegas.
"Hell, no," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm responded.
Richardson quickly withdrew his statement, but the issue is bound to come up again and it may not be so simply resolved.
A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office predicts that 36 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years. Another report by the U.S. Department of the Interior says that wide areas of the West will suffer major water woes by 2025.
At the same time, global warming probably will shrink the amount of water in the Great Lakes while increasing water demand.
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"The wolf may not be at the door at the moment," said Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, "but the threat is very real."
To protect the Great Lakes — and prevent its water from being piped to places like Atlanta and Phoenix — the governors of eight states and the premiers of two Canadian provinces signed a preliminary agreement in late 2005.
If approved by the eight state legislatures and Congress, this agreement, known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, would ban most diversions and require the eight states to set water-use policies.
A regional board would oversee how Great Lakes water could be used.
Ontario and Quebec are voluntarily going along with the compact.
Getting the compact approved is "absolutely critical," said Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation.
"We don’t have the luxury of waiting," she said. "If we do not act to protect our water, others may decide to take action for us, and they may not make the same choices we would make. . . .
"Battles over water are not science fiction. They are occurring now in the United States and around the globe and they will only get worse."
But not everyone thinks that the compact is the best way to protect the region’s water.
The agreement would do more than stop Great Lakes water from going to Arizona or Georgia. It could also make it more difficult to supply water to parts of Ohio.
The Lake Erie basin cuts across northern Ohio. Akron straddles the divide between the Lake Erie and Ohio River basins.
The compact would make any future Akron water expansions into southern Summit County very difficult and perhaps impossible, said Michael McGlinchy, head of the Akron Public Utilities Bureau.
The compact has been approved by legislatures in Illinois and Minnesota. Its passage seems likely in New York. It is moving forward slowly in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana.
Wisconsin lawmakers have taken little action toward implementation because of concerns that some Wisconsin communities just outside the Great Lakes basin need drinking water.
In Ohio, passage has been blocked by state Sen. Timothy Grendell, R-Chesterland. He is convinced that the compact is "fatally flawed."
Grendell is concerned that the compact could intrude on private property rights and turn private lakes, ponds and wells into public domain.
He also fears that Ohio could lose control of Lake Erie’s water to the other Great Lakes states and that could hurt economic development.
In 2006, the compact passed the Ohio House 82-5, but the Senate took no action because of Grendell’s opposition. Rep. Matthew Dolan, R-Novelty, has reintroduced the legislation in the Ohio House.
Passage is expected to be a 2008 priority for Gov. Ted Strickland.
Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Strickland backs the compact and is optimistic that it can win legislative support.
The administration is convinced that the threat to the Great Lakes is real and pressure to divert its water will increase in the future, Logan said.
Like Grendell, an Ohio industry-backed group, the Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, has raised concerns about whether the compact could hurt economic development.
Members of the coalition are the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Manufacturing Association, the Ohio Petroleum Council, the Ohio Chemical Technology Council, the Ohio Soft Drink Association and the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
Linda Woggon, of the Chamber of Commerce, said the coalition is worried that the agreement’s wording could limit or block water use.
Ohio has had no restrictions on water use or withdrawals. But the agreement says that water withdrawals cannot be permitted if they cause a significant change in the quantity or quality of Great Lakes water or any of the streams draining into the Great Lakes.
That means that a new industry such as a steel mill drawn to northern Ohio might be blocked by the compact if it needs large quantities of water, she said.
Even so, Woggon said, the coalition supports the compact and is asking state legislatures to deal with its concerns in separate legislation.
New industries could be attracted to northern Ohio because of the water that is here.
Having water when other regions are suffering from shortages will provide a big boost to the Great Lakes region, said David Ullrich of the Chicago-based Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
"It’s an economic gold mine," he said, though he added that it could be decades before the full value of Great Lakes water manifests itself as an economic driver for the region.
The thirst for Great Lakes water is nothing new.
Work on crafting the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact began in 1998 after a Canadian company proposed shipping water from Lake Superior in tankers to Asia.
Before that, there had been plans to use the Great Lakes to replenish the Mississippi River and to refill the Ogallala aquifer on the Great Plains.
Annin, the Great Lakes Water Wars author, said Great Lakes diversions may be expensive but they are very feasible. And as drinking water becomes scarcer, more proposals are likely to surface.
"The compact will ensure that we’re not vulnerable 20 or 30 or 50 years down the road when the wolf is at the door," he said.
The Great Lakes have some protection under the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986. This law requires that any diversions from the lakes be approved by the governors of all eight Great Lakes states.
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in the Lake Erie basin to Coventry, Copley and Springfield townships, which are in the Ohio River basin.
That project was approved, largely because Akron pumped water from the Portage Lakes into the Little Cuyahoga and Cuyahoga rivers to replace the water provided to the townships.
On the other hand, a diversion request from Lowell, Ind., was rejected by the governors. Annin said the fear was that approving such localized requests would set a precedent and leave the Great Lakes at risk from large-scale diversions.
Annin and other experts believe that the current protection of the Great Lakes is inadequate.
Right now, Great Lakes water is one lawsuit away from being piped or shipped to other water-needy regions of the country and the world, Annin said.
Then there’s global warming.
Noah Hall is an environmental law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation. He’s also co-author of a new report, Climate Change and Great Lakes Water Resources.
"The Great Lakes are facing the one-two punch of global warming and water diversion," Hall said. "Now we know that climate change is certain to put additional stress and pressure on the Great Lakes."
Hall’s report indicates that water levels in the Great Lakes are likely to drop because of rising temperatures, increased evaporation and less ice covering the lakes.
According to some estimates, average Ohio temperatures will rise 9 degrees in the spring and 7 degrees in the summer by 2050; they will likely rise 12 degrees in the winter and up to 14 degrees in the summer by 2100. At the same time, summer precipitation will decline, and aquifers that feed the Great Lakes will drop.
Hall’s report says water levels on Erie and Ontario will probably drop by 4 feet and Huron and Michigan are likely to drop by 41/2 feet.
Such a drop would shrink Lake Erie by 15 percent. That would affect Great Lakes shipping and tourism.
Cold-water fish like walleyes would disappear, to be replaced by muskie, northern pike, bass and sunfish.
Because of the higher temperatures and less predictable precipitation, Hall said, farmers, industries and power plants around the Great Lakes would demand more water.
Elsewhere in the country, global warming is expected to result in less snow in the West and less water in rivers like the Colorado and the Columbia.
Extreme droughts like the one that hit Georgia this year would "exacerbate and increase the pressure on the Great Lakes to divert water" to needy regions, Hall said.
The 2010 census could have a big impact on the Great Lakes.
Hall said Ohio and the other Great Lakes states could lose 10 to 15 seats in Congress — with those seats being picked up by water-needy regions like the West and South.
That means that the post-2010 Congress may be less inclined to protect the Great Lakes when their own regions need water.
"That window of opportunity to move (the compact) through Congress," Hall said, "will start shutting in 2010."
The National Wildlife Federation report is available at http://www.nwf.org/news. You also can check out http://www.greatlakeswaterwars.com. Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.