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Great Lakes Article:

Unquenchable thirst imperils Great Lakes
By Gary Heinlein and Charlie Cain
The Detroit News
06/08/03


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, too.

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 so bottomless.

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 to Asia.

None of those diversions happened, but future attempts are likely.

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.

Nearby pressures

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 system.

"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 diversions.

"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 in Wisconsin.

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 hope.

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.

Western threat

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 astronomical costs.

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 gallons daily.

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."

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