Lakes Water Supply is Not Inexhaustible
Letter from Shedd Aquarium Director of Conservation
Originally printed in Chicago Wilderness Magazine
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.
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.
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.
consequences of many little diversions from the Great
Lakes seem small.
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.
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