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Senate Fiscal AgencyGary S. Olson, Director - Lansing,
Michigan - (517) 373-2768 - TDD (517) 373-0543Internet
State NotesTOPICS OF LEGISLATIVE INTEREST
SKIMMING THE SURFACE: GREAT LAKES WATER DIVERSION
by Nobuko Nagata, Legislative Analyst
Introduction:The Great Lakes basin covers approximately
95,000 square miles and contains five ofthe largest freshwater
lakes in the world. The Great Lakes system and its bays
andtributaries contain 20% of the world's supply of freshwater
and 95% of North America'ssupply of surface freshwater.
They provide a vast array of benefits including water
fordrinking, recreation, agricultural and industrial needs,
energy production, economical andefficient transportation,
and environmental balance.According to the U.S.-Canada
International Joint Commission (IJC), established by theBoundary
Waters Treaty of 1909, all of the water in the Great Lakes
basin is currentlybeing used in some way. There is in
effect no surplus resource, but rather competitionamong
The National Wildlife Federation reports that within
the next 25 years, thenumber of countries facing chronic
water shortages will increase to 50. That, coupledwith
a constant rise in world population and the need for freshwater,
poses a seriousthreat to the Great Lakes resource. Therefore,
it is necessary to review existing andpotential activities
that have or could have a substantial impact on the supply
and sharingof the Great Lakes water resource. Because
of the subject's complexity, this articlesimply provides
a brief overview for those unfamiliar with the issue.
It explains thebackground of the issues concerning Great
Lakes water diversion; discuses its potentialimpacts;
and reviews current water management policies.
Background: The Michigan Department of Environmental
Quality (DEQ) states that Great Lakesdiversion is a man-made
transfer of water into or out of the Great Lakes basin
or betweenthe basins of two Great Lakes.
Consumptive water use is the withdrawal from the GreatLakes
basin of water that is not returned to the original source
because it is consumedby people, plants, or animals; incorporated
into products (such as bottled water); or lostthrough
evaporation or leakage.There are currently five major
diversions in the Great Lakes basin, which are used forcommercial
navigation, energygeneration, and municipal water purposes.
The CanadianLong Lac and Ogoki diversions transfer water
into Lake Superior and are important forhydroelectric
power generation. The Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan
transferswater out of metropolitan Chicago through the
Illinois waterway. The New York StateBarge Canal and the
Welland Canal are intrabasin diversions that transfer
water fromLake Erie to Lake Ontario. Reportedly, excluding
the New York State Barge Canaldiversion, these major diversions
and consumptive uses have produced some changesin Great
Lakes levels and outflows.
Moreover, recent public concern has been focused on the
potential movement offreshwater in bulk beyond the Great
Lakes basin. In 1998, a Canadian companyproposed a plan
to export 158 million gallons of water from Lake Superior
to Asia. Theplan was rescinded after public objection.
In February 2002, three northern MichiganIndian tribes
sued to prevent groundwater diversion from the Great Lakes
by a Perrierwater bottling plant, which received DEQ permits
in August 2001.
The Mecosta Countyplant is expected to produce more than
260 million gallons of bottled water annually.According
to an article in theDetroit Free Press(3-1-02), the tribes
are concerned aboutthe potential impacts on Great Lakes
water levels.ImpactsAccording to the Michigan Environmental
Council, the annual rainfall, surface waterrunoff, and
inflow from groundwater sources renew only 1% of the water
in the GreatLakes. Most of the freshwater source is a
result of glacial disposition.
The water levelof each of the Great Lakes depends virtually
on the balance between the amount of waterentering and
the amount of water leaving the basin. Therefore, large-scale
waterdiversion and consumptive use could have various
impacts on the Great Lakes.Essentially, the magnitude
of the net effect on the water level of each Great Lakedepends
on the location and diversion in the system. Reportedly,
the combined effectof the existing diversions has raised
water levels in Lake Superior and Lake Ontario byless
than one inch; dropped water levels in Lake Huron and
Lake Michigan by more thantwo inches; and dropped levels
in Lake Erie by five inches.
These changes are smallcompared with the annual range
of natural lake level fluctuations, but the combined effectof
one or more large-scale diversions and increased consumption
could have a significantpotential impact on the water
supply. According to an article on Great Lakes Diversion
and Consumptive Water Use published by the Legislative
Service Bureau's Science and Technology Division, diversions
and consumptive uses could potentially have moredramatic
local effects on smaller lakes and streams in the Great
Lakes basin.Since the water depth in navigational channels
dictates the amount of cargo and loadingcapacity of a
vessel, commercial navigation could experience large economic
losses froma drop in lake levels caused by diversion.
The capacity of several major hydroelectricpower plants
in the connecting channels of the Great Lakes is directly
proportional to thevolume of water available to flow through
the system. Therefore, a drop in lake levelswould have
an effect on pumping costs.
The diversion of Great Lakes water also couldinfluence
beach use, alter fish and wildlife resources, and affect
coastal interests. Thereis also a possibility that an
out-of-basin diversion could increase pollutant concentrationsand
provide a passage for the unintentional introduction and
spread of aquatic nuisancespecies.According to the IJC,
however, there is insufficient information available to
draw anycumulative or substantial basin-wide economic
or environmental implications.
Presumably, most people would agree that diversions and
large consumptive uses shouldnot be allowed without thorough
regulatory review, comprehensive analysis, adequatecommunication,
and unanimous approval.
The following is a brief description of severalmajor
Great Lakes water management policies that are currently
in effect: The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 is a
binding agreement that prohibits theconsumptive use, obstruction,
and diversion of boundary waters (waters intersected bythe
international boundary between United States and Canada,
which excludes tributariesand Lake Michigan) that affect
the natural level or flow of boundary waters without theapproval
of the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission created
under the treaty.
The Great Lakes Charter of 1985 is a nonbinding agreement
between the Great Lakesstate governors and Canadian premiers
to conserve the levels and flows of the GreatLakes and
tributaries, to protect and conserve the Great Lakes basin's
ecosystemresources, and to facilitate cooperation between
the two countries. The Charter requiresthe approval of
any diversion of water greater than 5 million gallons
per day average inany 30-day period. A state or province,
however, may approve plans over otherjurisdictions' objections.
The Annex 2001, an amendment to the Great Lakes Charterthat
was signed in June 2001, directs the states and provinces
to develop a new bindingagreement to manage the waters
of the Great Lakes, develop a standard for new orincreased
water withdrawals, and make further commitments to continue
to improve theGreat Lakes water management system.
The Federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986 requires
the approval of allGreat Lakes states' governors on any
proposed diversion of water from the Great Lakes system
outside of the basin. The Act, however, does not address
consumptive uses of Great Lakes water within the basin.
Part 327 (Great Lakes Preservation) of Michigan's Natural
Resources and EnvironmentalProtection Act (MCL 324.32701-324.32714)
prohibits new diversions of water out of the Great Lakes
basin from Michigan's portion of the Great Lakes. It establishes
a Statewater use registration and reporting program, requires
the Department of EnvironmentalQuality to cooperate and
exchange information with other states and provinces,
andcreates the Water Use Protection Fund. The Act, however,
does not restrict consumptiveuses of Great Lakes' waters.Through
a variety of permit and/or approval requirements, the
other Great Lakes statesalso regulate diversions and consumptive
uses of water in the Great Lakes basin.