Unquenchable thirst imperils Great
By Gary Heinlein and Charlie Cain
The Detroit News
The Great Lakes are under seige.
The shorelines that define our state geographically and
economically are likely to become battlefields between
Michigan and thirsty cities, states and even nations.
Those battles could wreck the lakes that power the region's
commerce, and irreversibly damage their fragile ecology.
Fighting for access to the water are forces from near
and far. Communities that already draw their water from
the lakes are siphoning off more and more; cities and
towns not allowed to take Great Lakes water are demanding
it; there's even a remote possibility that parched regions
of the United States and other nations will request it,
Demand is at a record high -- and will only increase
in years to come -- at a time when a dry spell has dropped
lake levels to a near-record low.
It's not a question of whether a water war is looming,
but when it will be fought, and -- most importantly to
The Great Lakes State -- who will win.
A trillion gallons a day are taken from a seemingly bottomless
supply of Great Lakes water that, today, doesn't seem
Experts say the best defense is an interstate pact that
will impose conservation measures and costs on Great Lakes
citizens, to make it economically unfeasible for others
to come after the water.
That will mean enacting restrictions on water use and
taxing ourselves, at the tap, to enforce the strictures
and protect the lakes.
That way, Great Lakes citizens will show they aren't
careless with their own resource, and put their states
in a better position to fend off interlopers.
It could be a high cost for Michigan residents. But the
cost of doing nothing could be even greater.
"We will not be able to take water for granted in
the future, and that goes for the United States as well,"
said Robert Engelman, vice president of research at the
Washington, D.C,. study group, Population Action International.
While it's hard to put a price tag on the Great Lakes'
value to Michigan and the region, they are critical to
this state's economy, and its identity: Michigan's $12.5
billion tourist industry depends heavily on the lakes,
and the state leads the nation with nearly 1 million boat
registrations. When lake levels drop, so does the economy
-- the state loses tens of millions of dollars in reduced
cargo on Great Lakes freighters, electrical generation
and recreational spending.
Where Michigan sees fishing and shipping, an increasingly
thirsty world sees a water cooler the size of Texas. An
estimated 500 million people around the globe have too
little water. As many as 3.5 billion people will face
water shortages in 50 years.
Water could well be the oil of the next century, and
Michigan will be the Middle East.
"The rest of the world is taking the imminent water
crisis very seriously," said Toronto environmental
lawyer Sarah Miller. "They're going to be knocking
on our door some day, and the clock is running."
Great Lakes watchers were first jolted by a series of
1980s schemes to send billions of gallons of water westward
in pipes or canals to bolster the Mississippi, the Missouri
or the country's biggest aquifer. And, in 1998, a Canadian
businessman gained permission to ship Lake Superior water
None of those diversions happened, but future attempts
That's why, experts say, an interstate pact is necessary.
State regulations that simply prohibit Great Lakes diversions
very likely would be unconstitutional under the federal
interstate commerce clause, according to Chris Shafer,
an authority on environmental law at Thomas M. Cooley
Law School in Lansing. But statutes that evenhandedly
regulate water withdrawals for legitimate purposes, such
as conserving water or protecting resources, are more
likely to stand up, Shafer says.
In hopes of encouraging the kind of conservation that
may keep the water wolves at bay, Chicago Mayor Richard
Daley this spring proposed installing water meters on
350,000 of the city's 510,000 homes and businesses that
don't have them. Those Chicagoans would, for the first
time, pay rates based on usage, rather than a flat fee.
The plan still is under consideration.
Lowell, Ind., doesn't look like a threat to the Great
Lakes. The town of 7,500 tucked amid farms is just five
miles from the Great Lakes Basin. It wants water from
nearby Lake Michigan. Michigan says no.
The 1.7 million gallons a day Lowell wants to relieve
its wells are a symbol of the most immediate threat to
the Great Lakes -- diversion to the growing towns and
suburbs outside the basin.
The Great Lakes basin spreads across 291,200 square miles
in eight states and two Canadian provinces. Rain that
falls in that area drains into the lakes.
In 1992, Michigan Gov. John Engler rejected a request
from Lowell to tap into Lake Michigan water after the
request was approved by the governors of the other Great
Lakes states -- a difference of opinion that says as much
about politics as geography.
Michigan is the only state that is completely within
the basin; only parts of the other Great Lakes states
fall inside that boundary. Those states will feel pressure
from within their borders to divert Great Lakes water
outside the basin to sprawling communities.
Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee are among the cities that
already draw their water from the lakes. But another tier
of cities outside the basin boundary is sidling up to
the Great Lakes trough.
Lowell is just a drop of the demand: New York, Chicago
suburbs and Wisconsin towns are among other communities
that covet Great Lakes water.
Population growth and development continue in the Great
Lakes region, boosting local water needs. In the last
decade -- a period of modest growth -- the population
increased by nearly 4 million, mostly in cities and townships
that now rely on wells but could press their governors
for the right to hook up to the Great Lakes.
Including the water that runs through power plants, the
Great Lakes region already uses just under a trillion
gallons a day. While most of that returns to the lakes,
about 2.5 billion gallons a day -- enough to lower the
water level 2 1/2 inches if it all came at once from Lakes
Michigan and Huron -- are consumed by crops and industries
that produce beer, baby food, bottled water and other
products. That water doesn't make it back into the Lakes
"It would be very easy to ship Great Lakes water
out through the Chicago diversion: Just increase the flowage,"
said U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, a leading congressional
defender of the Great Lakes and opponent of additional
"For someone to run a pipeline elsewhere may be
cost prohibitive, but it's not expensive at all to increase
the Chicago diversion."
The International Joint Commission, set up to foster
cooperation and wise water policies between Americans
and Canadians, predicts water demands will escalate in
the Cleveland-Akron area of Ohio, and Chicago-Gary region
in northern Illinois and Indiana, and Milwaukee's suburbs
Much of the development in those areas has spilled beyond
the meandering boundary of the Great Lakes basin, which
cuts close to Lake Michigan's shore in southern Wisconsin
and northern Illinois.
"We don't want Great Lakes water going out west
and having our great resource dry up, but it seems like
it shouldn't be a problem to get water for a community
near the basin, when there's a health risk for its people,"
said Daniel Duchniak, head of the water utility in Waukesha,
Wis., west of Milwaukee.
Wells that provide 8 million gallons a day to Waukesha's
68,000 residents are tainted by radium exceeding federal
drinking water standards. Radium, a naturally occurring
radioactive element in deep aquifers, is considered a
cancer risk. Waukesha's city leaders, facing a Sept. 8
Environmental Protection Agency deadline to propose a
remedy, see Lake Michigan water as perhaps their best
Nearby New Berlin, Wis., which has the area's biggest
industrial park and a population of 40,000, is outgrowing
the capacity of its municipal wells. Mayor Ted Wysocki
finds it "ironic" that his city, perched on
the edge of the Great Lakes basin, drinks from a ground
water table that probably feeds Lake Michigan -- but could
be denied access to the lake itself.
Northeast Illinois' Planning Commission projects that
region's population will jump from 8 million to nearly
10 million by 2030, causing water shortages in such cities
as Naperville, Waukegan and Joliet.
Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator for the Buffalo- and
Montreal-based environmental group Great Lakes United,
said these communities are "the leading edge"
of new pressures to divert Great Lakes water.
Beyond the Great Lakes basin, an ember of fear lingers
-- mostly among politicians and environmentalists -- that
we haven't seen the last of grandiose federal ideas that
flared in the 1980s for piping Great Lakes water westward.
They were abandoned because of logistical hurdles and
For example, one now-defunct plan would have used Great
Lakes water to recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, which extends
underground from South Dakota to Texas and holds more
water than Lake Michigan. But overuse and a persistent
drought continue to take their toll on the huge underground
reservoir, parts of which are severely depleted, raising
the possibility the breadbasket states it supports will
have to find a new water source.
They shouldn't look to Michigan for help. Gov. Jennifer
Granholm says the Great Lakes are ours, and we're going
to keep them.
Granholm said she won't allow Great Lakes water to go
outside the basin.
"I'm going to veto any diversion that results in
a net loss of water," Granholm told The Detroit News.
But there's a growing urgency to complete international
regulations and reform lax state water laws -- efforts
Granholm says she strongly backs.
Granholm's counterparts in neighboring states could find
it harder to say 'no' to basin outsiders. They'll likely
face growing political pressure from cities in their states
whose suburban growth is overwhelming their water supplies,
but are outside the basin boundary.
Steadily eroding Midwest clout in the U.S. House of Representatives
leads some to believe it's only a matter of time before
parched regions stake claims to Great Lakes water. The
U.S. Water Resources Development Act of 1986 gives Great
Lakes governors domain over the lakes, but a future Congress
might be more sympathetic to the needs of dry states.
The Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces bordering
the lakes haven't completed work on a set of rules and
regulations for deciding who can pump water out of the
lakes, and how much they can take. The governments are
supposed to reach agreement on guidelines by June 2004,
but critics say progress has slowed, in part, because
five of the Great Lakes governors -- Michigan's included
-- are new.
Without such regulations, there's no assurance the federal
interest in solving problems elsewhere wouldn't trump
the Great Lakes states' efforts to keep their water. International
trade agreements might even outweigh states' rights under
the current circumstances.
Enough for 40 million
Theoretically, the vast lakes contain more then enough
water for the 40 million people who live within an easy
drive of their shores. They also could supply such additional
cities as Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix, whose combined
population of about 6 million uses nearly 1.5 billion
But shipping Great Lakes water to those far-away cities,
even if it were economically feasible, would be risky.
Toronto's Miller headed a task force that six years ago
cited estimates that the lakes would fall 6 inches by
2035, if human consumption of Great Lakes water quadruples
by 2035, as expected. The International Joint Commission
more recently said the demand could increase from 4 percent
to 25 percent over the same period.
Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, which serves
4.3 million people in 126 Michigan communities, predicts
its service area will swell to 6.15 million people in
50 years. It hasn't projected how much that will boost
the amount of water it pumps from Lake Huron and the Detroit
River, now averaging 677 million gallons a day.
Given the difficulty in making projections, "it's
a misconception that there's an excess of water in the
Great Lakes," says Michael Donahue, executive director
of the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission.
The commission, which collects data and makes recommendations
to the surrounding states and provinces, is working full-steam
ahead to fill some of the broad gaps in our knowledge
of water use and its impact.
Meanwhile, Donahue suggests, it's best to assume there's
no water to spare. "When it comes to water management,"
he says, "a little paranoia is a good thing."