Proposed Great Lakes Restrictions Threaten Unintended Consequences

Published February 1, 2008

The Great Lakes Water Wars
by Peter Annin
Island Press, 2006
320 pages, $25.95, ISBN 1559630876

Ninety-five percent of the fresh water in the United States is in the Great Lakes Basin, which is controlled by the states that border it.

The governors of those states signed a compact in 2005 that, if approved by their state legislatures and then the U.S. Congress, will determine the future of all the water and how it is used for the foreseeable future. This is possible because the states have sovereignty over the waters in their territory, subject to the federal government’s right to resolve disputes between them.

Useful History

In The Great Lakes Water Wars, former Newsweek correspondent Peter Annin tells the story of the Great Lakes Basin Compact and how it may change the lives of many Americans.

The history of the use of the Great Lakes water is long and rich, and this is where Annin truly distinguishes his tale. He delves into the fascinating and sometimes absurd array of proposed schemes, both failed and accomplished, to use the lakes’ waters.

Some of the proposals include:

  • reversing the flow of the Chicago River to purge pollution (accomplished);
  • creating a reservoir out of the Cuyahoga River, to feed Akron’s water needs (accomplished); and
  • damming Canada’s James Bay to keep out salt water and then diverting fresh water from the bay south across the U.S. Midwest and Southwest (rejected).

Battle Brewing

All of this is rich context for a battle brewing today. By outlining the social history and the magnitude and variety of projects attempted in the past, Annin helps the reader understand what is really at stake and why the issue is more contentious and important than ever.

For decades, Canadians and Americans in the Great Lakes Basin have been concerned about overuse of Great Lakes water. A study of the past half-century of water diversions planned, completed, and scrapped, however, makes it obvious the era of major diversions and water transfers in the United States and Canada has ended.

The Great Lakes Basin contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, amounting to about 6 quadrillion gallons. While it was created by glaciers during the last ice age and only about 1 percent is replenished each year, the replenishment amounts to 60 trillion new gallons of fresh water–more than 160 billion gallons of water each day.

This replenishment is more than the collective eight states can conceive of using. And even if the eight states did use it, at least 90 percent would not be consumed but would be returned to the lakes as runoff or infiltration to groundwater that would thereafter flow back to the lakes directly or via the network of streams flowing into them.

Activists Falsely Claim Crisis

Jim Nicholas, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science Center in Lansing, Michigan, believes only 1.5 percent of the water used by the Great Lakes states is ultimately lost from the basin. This should convince the states’ legislatures that there is plenty of water for human consumption.

Surprisingly, however, environmental advocacy groups have been very effective at convincing the various state legislatures that an impending crisis exists over the Great Lakes water supply.

For example, on December 13, 2005 the Council of Great Lakes Governors, along with the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, released a series of nonbinding agreements limiting the use of Great Lakes waters. Environmental activists are now seeking to make the agreements binding and to obtain formal federal approval of them.

Unfortunately, the overriding theme of the agreements is that in order to ensure no water may ever be diverted from the basin, states must show Congress they will protect the waters from overuse or misuse. Acceptance of this premise has caused many in the leadership of the Great Lakes legislatures to behave as though they resided in a desert rather than in one of the world’s richest water resources.

New Proposals

The current version of the new compact includes the following key provisions:

  • a ban on new water diversions, with very limited exceptions;
  • a requirement that the eight basin states regulate in-basin water uses;
  • the creation of a uniform regional standard for evaluating proposed water withdrawals, which can be vetoed by any of the eight governors; and
  • a requirement that each state adopt a water conservation plan, as though they were all short of water.

In addition to these provisions, the waters of the Great Lakes were defined as including all rivers and groundwater lying within the basin, which automatically makes every well in the basin subject to regulation by the Basin Compact.

Unintended Consequences

As the various states are drafting new rules to govern their own shares of Great Lakes water, it becomes clear the obscure language in the documents will make local industries vulnerable to harassing anti-business litigation. What too few realize, as Annin explains, is that the Water Resources Development Act passed by Congress in 1986 already protects the lakes from diversion by virtue of a veto power given to each state’s governor.

In the end, formal, binding implementation of the Great Lakes Compact by all eight basin states and then the U.S. Congress will be resented by citizens of those states who are not active members of the misguided advocacy groups who see all individual and economic progress as detrimental to the earth.

Annin’s book is very well-written and wonderfully comprehensive in both the current and historical contexts. It does, however, have a clearly liberal, anti-development bias which, to this writer’s mind, dramatically underestimates the continuing and expanding value of the Great Lakes to their adjoining states.

Nevertheless, Annin does such an outstanding job of presenting all sides of the issue that he thoroughly convinced this reviewer that implementation of the compact is a terrible idea for the average citizen of those eight states and is of no significant benefit to the wondrous Great Lakes ecosystem.

I highly recommend this book to those interested in this great wonder of the natural world and how we can best preserve it for our own benefit.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.