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Great Lakes Water Supply is Not Inexhaustible
Letter from Shedd Aquarium Director of Conservation Roger Klocek
Originally printed in Chicago Wilderness Magazine
Posted 09/27/2002

Dear Editor,

The Great Lakes once had a flourishing fishery, which people little more than 100 years ago thought was inexhaustible. Wasteful practices, however, have proved the fallacy of inexhaustibility. Now the introduction of exotic species into the Great Lakes has changed the ecosystem into one that bears little resemblance to the original lakes, and supports a moderate fishery. The lesson is that for all of the vastness of the Great Lakes, things can change quickly and often unpredictably.

The Annex 2001 proposed amendment to the Great Lakes Charter of 1985 is a laudable step in the right direction. It sets strict standards for the diversion or export of Great Lakes water. By controlling the use of Great Lakes water and keeping it in the Great Lakes system, human and wildlife needs are safeguarded. This may not seem significant today, because many of us view the Great Lakes as having a virtually inexhaustible water supply.

One cause for concern, however, is the provision that would allow each governor to permit the diversion or export of small amounts of water on his or her own authority. Presently, such diversions require the unanimous vote of all governors. While individual diversions of water are usually minor for a defined drinking water, agricultural, or industrial purpose, a larger problem could be allowed by the amendment. The Western states are growing rapidly in population, and are always looking for new sources of water. The gigantic Ogallala aquifer, which supplies irrigation water to the Great Plains states, is being drawn down significantly. A few years back, California had a plan to tap water from Canada, which was finally scrapped but only after some infrastructure had already been built. Presently, we have the technology to pump Great Lakes water all of the way to the Pacific ocean if we choose to. Charters like Annex 2001 can keep this from happening, if the loopholes are closed.

The consequences of many little diversions from the Great Lakes seem small.

The analogy of a few people taking a drink from a bathtub full of water is applicable: Sipping by a few folks is not measurable by ordinary means. A few hundred folks taking a sip every day for a month drains the tub. In the last few years Lake Michigan has gone through one of its poorly understood cycles of lowered lake levels. Small craft have difficulty maneuvering into some harbors.

Commercial barge transport of material and grain is hindered by lowered levels. Elevated water temperatures due to lowering water levels over inshore fish spawning areas may hinder some shallow spawning species. Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes cannot ecologically or commercially afford the record low water levels that we are headed for in 2001. Uncontested water diversions cannot be a good bargain for the Great Lakes states, and comments to the governors and provincial ministers can help to refine the Annex 2001 provisions.

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