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Great Lakes Article:


Great Lakes region fearful of losing precious water
By John Flesher
Chicago Sun Times
Published November 21st, 2004


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- When a Canadian company floated the idea of hauling Lake Superior water aboard huge tankers to parched sections of Asia, the reaction hereabouts resembled the fury of the region's infamous November gales.

''Back Off Suckers,'' warned billboards along Michigan highways that depicted outsiders sipping from the Great Lakes with gigantic straws. Politicians on both sides of the border voiced outrage. Before long, the Canadian agency that had issued a permit for the Superior shipments withdrew it.

In the six years since, no other proposal has surfaced to divert Great Lakes water to arid places. Yet many believe grabs are inevitable as the global water crisis worsens. Of particular concern is the western United States.

Lake levels remain low

''There are threats, and they promise to increase over time,'' said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Although vast enough to spread a 91/2-foot-deep sheet across the continental United States, the lake system is heavily burdened. Nearly 40 million people live in the region, and its $2 trillion economy features water-dependent industries such as auto manufacturing, shipping, tourism and agriculture.

Lake levels haven't fully recovered from a dropoff several years ago caused by drought and a warming trend. Climate change could push them even lower, scientists say.

''Despite their size, they're extremely fragile,'' said Cheryl Mendoza, watershed conservation manager for the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation.

Three years after agreeing to regulate large-scale water withdrawals, the Council of Great Lakes Governors released a detailed plan in July. The region's eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces plan to vote on a revised version next spring.

Activists split on governors' plan

Some environmentalists praise the plan for requiring that any new diversion of water outside the Great Lakes drainage basin meet conservation standards. But critics say there's a flaw: The plan concedes such diversions could happen instead of just banning them.

For all the worries that water from the lakes will one day spout from Las Vegas fountains, the biggest threat may be closer to home.

Water diversions already take place within the Great Lakes region itself -- and pressure is mounting for more.

By far the biggest is at Chicago, which diverts Lake Michigan water to its municipal system and the Mississippi River. The U.S. Supreme Court limited the volume to 3,200 cubic feet per second, but some fear the city will try to boost the flow.

''If Chicago were to fully utilize their canal system now, they could lower all the Great Lakes by up to six inches,'' David Ramsay, the Ontario natural resources minister, said recently.

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