Western drought sparks another muse about pipelines of water headed westward. The time to quash this thinking is now.
If you're a long-time follower of the threat from arid western states to Great Lakes water, this scenario won't be news to you.
Prolonged drought like the one the west is currently experiencing hits and water managers start thinking about alternate sources. Hmmm, the Great Lakes region has water, way more than it needs. We build pipelines to transport other commodities, why not water? There's a flurry of discussion then said western state gets rain and the issue fades. Fades, being the key word, taking Great Lakes water doesn't go away, it's always in the background.
The latest Great Lakes water muse comes from Idaho as reported by Fox News Radio. The story hits the traditional talking points previously mentioned here -- surplus Great Lakes water shipped to Idaho by pipeline, problem solved. Simplistic thinking? Sure. But these are the times we're in.
But this time someone in Idaho has done their homework. The story never mentions the Great Lakes Compact, the eight state agreement that prevents water diversions, with a few exceptions, to areas outside the Great Lakes basin. The Compact is also codified in a federal law signed by former President George W. Bush in 2008, which takes precedent.
But the writer must be aware of the law because this is tucked into the end of the story.
"Millions of thirsty western voters will have a lot of pull on policy. As the region grows, so does its power in the United States House of Representatives. By its design, the Senate is already favorable to western concerns."
And they got it right. The Great Lakes states will lose five seats in the House as a result of the 2020 census. Toss in the fact that the federal government has been unstable for the past four years and Congress is still showing signs of instability and in a few years, or 10 years a perfect storm could descend. A serious legislative move to ditch the Great Lakes Compact could be a real threat.
When I mention the potential threat to the lakes from the west to people who pay attention to
policy issues, I usually get a polite scoff. Followed by "we've got the Compact." Or worse, "the Compact is ironclad."
That kind of thinking comes through a 2008 lens. What's needed is for the Great Lakes intelligentsia -- governors, mayors, policy advisers and water conservation advocates -- to view the threat of diversions through a 2028 lens.
And to start now on a move to quash the diversion threat from western states before it gains momentum in our rickety federal government.
Because like a bolder going down hill, once a movement gets momentum in Washington, it's hard to stop.
Should traders, hedge fund managers and others be able to bet on future water prices and availability?
In my daily scan of news from around the region, what one editor told me was both a blessing and a curse, there is no shortage of Great Lakes stories.
They’re omnipresent. Some are substantive but most lean towards being a rehash of familiar themes and issues with marginal updates. But occasionally one jumps off the page like this one and I’m riveted.
“MWRD Board of Commissioners Passes Resolution that Affirms Water is a Basic Human Right.”
First, MWRD is the greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a beneath the radar agency that manages the sewerage system and generally takes care of the Chicago River for Chicago’s teeming millions. It’s more complex than that but you get the picture.
Declaring access to safe drinking water is a human right is a strong statement. Especially from an agency that has a reputation for liking the status quo until recent years when more progressive commissioners were elected.
But here’s the kicker.
The press release begins talking about the December 2020 launch of “the country’s first water futures market” in California. “It allows traders, banks, hedge funds, and others to bet on future water prices and availability,” according to the MWRD release.
What followed was a statement from Commissioner Cam Davis.
“We are blessed to live, work, and play in one of the most water-rich regions on the entire planet. Water belongs to us all because all life depends on it. This strong statement by my colleagues puts us on record against privatizing water for private gain.”
Just like that, the agency responsible for safe-guarding water for over 5 million residents in the country’s 3rd largest city bordering Lake Michigan laid down a marker.
The Great Lakes should not be for sale, traded or speculated on in futures markets for profit.
If the name Cam Davis sounds familiar it’s because he has a long track record as an advocate for the Great Lakes. He led a not-for-profit and springboarded to the Obama EPA where he advised the administrator on Great Lakes issues before becoming a MWRD commissioner.
Relevant to diverting Great Lakes water, Davis was part of the NGO cadre that prompted the governors to pass the Great Lakes Compact preventing diversions. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 and remains in place today.
Davis and other veterans of Great Lakes issues going back 20 years or longer know that these threats to take Great Lakes water can be real.
In addition to Davis, veteran Michigan Great Lakes advocate Dave Dempsey is tracking the water futures issue. Dempsey authored Great Lakes For Sale in the early 2000s highlighting the perils of commodifying the Great Lakes. He has broad policy experience including advising the U.S. and Canadian governments on Great Lakes issues.
Dempsey is now an advocate for the public trust protection of the Great Lakes that MWRD advocates for in its resolution.
I don’t want to be alarmist. The Great Lakes region isn’t California and the futures market threat isn’t imminent. But the current generation of Great Lakes leaders including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer - the de facto Great Lakes CEO if such a title existed - are focused elsewhere. Certainly not on a potential future taking of water from the Great Lakes.
If those otherwise focused Great Lakes executives need a wake up call on the risk of selling Great Lakes water, they should read and heed the resolution penned by Chicago’s water commissioners.
Or call Davis or Dempsey, both of whom would be glad to tell them why this is an issue not to be ignored.
Chicago-based environmental journalist