The Great Lakes region rightly wants to keep its water in the region, no matter the dire straits the American west finds itself in. But we may want to tidy up our own conservation house too.
An article last week in USA Today set off a minor tizzy in my social media account. It touched on shipping Great Lakes water westward to help California and Arizona, et al, deal with their looming water shortages..
Diverting water west, or anywhere, is generally considered like touching the third rail in the Great Lakes region, you don’t do that.
It was a quick hit piece, it’s USA Today, so no depth or context. Therefore, my comments will be similarly brief.
The essence of the article was the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean (desalination) or harvesting icebergs could be a solution for California and Arizona’s water problems. The author then listed how the diversions could work and why it probably wouldn’t, fair enough.
It’s the type of article that has appeared a number of times previously and will be reconstituted again, and probably again. I gave it a glance and moved on.
Then came social media comments and the reactions from some Great Lakes defender types. No way will it happen, one post said, because if there’s one thing that brings people together in the region, it’s protecting the Great Lakes. Especially from the greedy, water-gulping western states who have a bad reputation on water conservation.
What’s ours is ours and we have a document, the Great Lakes Compact to prove it, was the message on social media. The compact is the eight state agreement codified into federal law in 2008 by President George W. Bush’s signature. Canada has a matching agreement
But let’s beware of regional sanctimony. The let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone mantra applies. Great Lakes defenders are aghast at water diversion attempts, except when they’re not.
Some background is relevant.
The architects of the compact - the eight states and two Canadian provinces - and their supporters felt the need to get something codified into law around 2002. It didn’t have to be perfect and they realized it had to be approved by eight states, so there would be compromises. And there were.
The consensus thinking was that if it didn’t allow for an out of basin diversion for Waukesha, Wisconsin, Wisconsin would reject the compact. So the authors concocted a straddling county provision. Meaning, if a city that wanted a diversion was in a county that straddled the basin divide, it would be eligible to tap a Great Lake.
Plus, included was a greenlight to divert water if in a container less than 5.7 gallons, essentially bottled water. It made no sense but again, a concession to business interests designed to secure approval.
The greater good theory in play on both, I guess. Accept a couple of bitter pills for the greater good of securing the Great Lakes Compact.
When challenged about the necessity of the straddling county and bottled water exceptions, compact advocates acknowledged them but said they could be addressed later. But we know how that goes, later usually never comes, and it hasn’t.
But what about the notorious Chicago diversion where Chicago takes about 2 billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan? If you look at a map, very little of Chicago is in the Great Lakes basin. Surely crafting of the compact, a document for the ages, will want to address that glaring drain on the lakes.
Nope. That diversion was approved by a Supreme Court decree and to go anywhere near it would have guaranteed years of litigation with uncertain outcomes. The Chicago diversion was hands off.
So, before getting all sanctimonious when the drought-stricken American West floats a plan to tap the Great Lakes, we ought to make sure our own conservation house is in order.
Because it’s not.
Links below to resources if you want to take a closer look at the Great Lakes Compact.
Great Lakes for Sale - Updated Edition, Dave Dempsey
The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin.
Chicago-based environmental journalist