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Great Lakes Article:

Draining the Great Lakes tub
Jerry Davich
Northwest Indiana Times
11/12/2002

There simply won't be enough fresh water for households, cities, the environment or even for growing food in just two decades unless rusty policies and short-sighted priorities are soon changed.

This warning comes from "Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis," a new report compiled by two nonprofit watchdog groups -- the International Food Policy Research Institute and the International Water Management Institute.

Using high-tech computer modeling, the report projects that daily global water use for households, industry and agriculture will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 20 years. Couple that with rapid population growth and urbanization in developing countries, and water may become Earth's new liquid gold, making gasoline crunches seem frivolous by comparison.

"Water is not like oil. There is no substitute," said Mark Rosegrant, lead author of the report.

And if this crisis plays out even near projections, the Great Lakes Basin -- the world's largest system of fresh water -- could be in high demand for arid U.S. regions like the Southwest and other countries.

"This report is right on target," said Cameron Davis, director of the Lake Michigan Federation, the oldest citizens' Great Lakes group on the continent. "We have the same amount of (usable) water in the world, but more and more people are using it."

According to Lake Michigan Federation data, at least 55 percent more water than is now available will be needed to satisfy the growing global population by 2025. And thirst is not just a third-world problem.

Los Angeles is moving toward privatizing public drinking water, and parts of North America's largest aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest, are being depleted.

"The biggest danger we face here in the U.S. is in believing shortages of clean water are problems that only exist in far-away places, that it's not something we have to worry about," Davis said. "If we let ourselves believe that, there are a lot of things that could come back to haunt us."

Despite just 1 percent of the Earth's water is fresh water -- for human use -- and the Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water, there are some critics who maintain a looming crisis is hatched from a Chicken Little mentality.

But Rosegrant disagrees.

"The report points out the potential crisis, but it also points to real solutions," Rosegrant said. "It is not a scare-mongering approach."

The report is part of a larger, three-year, $1 million study funded mostly by government donors, he said.

On the Lake Michigan front

Locally, the notion of a crisis is far from science fiction, as water-starved residents from The Pines in Porter County to Rosemont, Ill., can attest. Some homeowners, like in Winfield, have even been forced to ration water because of an unreliable underground aquifer.

And last week, more than 20 mayors of Great Lakes cities met in Chicago to draft long-term plans to protect the overburdened basin region, which serves about 40 million people. The mayors joined forces to seek a stronger voice with such issues like water withdrawal from the lakes.

Also, bottled water sales in the United States have tripled in the past decade, with much of that designer water siphoned from the Great Lakes. Perrier's new $100 million bottling plant in Mecosta County, Mich., pumps out about 125,000 gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan alone.

Jane Elder, director of the Biodiversity Project in Madison, Wis., said region residents feel strongly about protecting the Great Lakes, but they have a hard time viewing the lakes as a finite resource.

"There's little contention that we're facing a global fresh water crisis, and the future of the Great Lakes will be affected by the increased demand for fresh water," she said.

But, Elder noted, even the Great Lakes have their limits -- "it isn't just some big bathtub waiting to be drained."

The Great Lakes could come under heightened pressure to export water to other states and even other countries because current U.S. law and international trade agreements, like the North America Free Trade Agreement, see the export of water as a hot commodity.

"Currently, more than 1 billion people around the world do not have access to a safe water supply," said Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Large-scale withdrawal 'laughable'

To regulate harmful water withdrawals that don't take the basin's environment into account, the Council of Great Lakes Governors is working on a set of standards called the Great Lakes Charter Annex 2001. The annex, an amendment to the Great Lakes Charter of 1985, has a deadline of 2004.

"Existing state, national and international laws and treaties are not strong enough to prevent such withdrawals," Davis said. "Annex 2001 has the potential to revolutionize the way we regulate water use."

If these eight states look at the long view, the Great Lakes will continue to give us drinking water, recreation and jobs, he said. But if a short view is taken, "we'll slowly use the Great Lakes up."

Diverting water from the Great Lakes has been an issue of interest and controversy dating back to the 1800s. A future global population spurt or even climate changes could prompt renewed requests for shipments of Great Lakes water to meet short-term humanitarian needs.

But Peter Johnson, senior program manager for the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said there is no financial sense in shipping water to other countries or piping it across the continent to cities like Los Angeles.

"To people who are experts on this issue, the idea of large scale withdrawals is laughable," he said. "It would be unbelievably expensive and an extraordinarily complex engineering project."

Some observers, like local environmental activist Lee Botts, say one scenario to a possible water crisis is the possibility that it would attract people -- and economic interests -- to the Great Lakes region.

"Even with lower levels, we will still have one of the planet's best and largest water supplies," she said.

In other words, if the water can't go to the people, the people will come to the water.

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