Drought in the American west sparks interest in the Great Lakes. Policy experts sound the alarm but are governors listening?
It’s another day and another reference to the potential for water-rich areas in the U.S. and Canada to send water to the drought-stricken American west.
This week it’s Canada’s Maude Barlow on Twitter saying “water is disappearing in the American West. I predict it’s only a matter of time before there are ‘discussions’ on exporting Canadian water.”
There’s nothing revelatory about the statement as shipping water west has been talked about for decades. But context is important.
Barlow is not an idle observer, she’s an internationally known water rights advocate having advised the United Nations Secretary General on water issues.
Barlow’s comment comes on the heels of a news report that Idaho might be wise to look to Lake Michigan for water. Again, not unusual except that the report recognizes the potential legal barriers to securing Lake Michigan water but says that as the west gains political power, those laws may be changed at a future date.
Not every threat to take Great Lakes water comes from the west.
The village of Somers, Wisconsin recently started work on a pipeline that would tap Lake Michigan for a million gallons a day. There’s just one problem though. Somers isn’t in the Great Lakes basin so it’s not automatically entitled to Great Lakes water. It needs a permit from the state of Wisconsin which must review the request in compliance with the Great Lakes Compact, that eight-state agreement that governs diversions.
Maybe the village was just ignorant of the requirement for state approval, you may say. It’s a tiny village and a million gallons a day isn’t a lot of water. What’s the harm?
But there have been two high-profile requests from cities in this same area to take Lake Michigan water. It would be hard for a water utility manager to not know about the withdrawal permits needed from the state DNR.
There are also unaddressed weaknesses in the Compact itself. When drafted, it included a diversion allowance for cities in a county that “straddled” the Great Lakes basin. The provision was included to help secure Wisconsin’s vote to approve the Compact because everyone knew that Waukesha, a city in a county that “straddles” the basin divide, was on the cusp of requesting a withdrawal from Lake Michigan.
My point here is that when you have the world’s largest source of fresh surface water on Earth, water-poor areas will want you to share it.
That’s where the Great Lakes governors come into play. They’re responsible, individually and as a collective, to make sure Great Lakes water stays in the Great Lakes basin.
What are they saying about water conservation and protecting the Great Lakes from diversions? Nothing that I can tell.
The governors and Canadian premieres from Ontario and Quebec will gather for their biennial “summit” in Cleveland in September. Missing from the agenda is any reference to the Great Lakes Compact, future threats from diversion requests to the American west or water conservation in general, which is their responsibility.
The people sounding the alarm on conserving Great Lakes water and protecting it from commodification aren’t fringe alarmists. They are veteran policy experts who have the long view like Chicago’s Cameron Davis and Dave Dempsey from Traverse City, in addition to Canada’s Barlow.
The governors should invite them to speak at their “summit.” There are lessons they can learn.
Chicago-based environmental journalist