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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Could Thirsty Southwest Suck the Great Lakes Dry in 50 Years?

April 14, 2017

The claim for Great Lakes fresh water has reared its ugly head again as a California researcher advocates piping it to the thirsty West.  It’s not a new idea, but why can’t someone think of something different and more practical than piping water to the Southwest?

The latest proposal comes from the chief water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.  The Detroit Free Press reports this week that Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and senior water scientist at JPL, raised the possibility in an April 4 interview with, a nonprofit owner and operator of Cleveland public broadcasting stations. Famiglietti was in Ohio to speak as part of a lecture series at Case Western Reserve University.

“I think the global water crisis is far worse than most people imagine, because it includes both the water quality and water quantity components, and when you put those two together, I’m sorry to say it’s almost an unsolvable problem,” Famiglietti said when questioned about its seriousness. “And so what I like to tell people is not that we need to bury our heads, but that we need to learn how to manage our way through.  We’re not going to end it, but we can manage our way through.”

Famiglietti said there’s a giant bull’s-eye that can be seen from space that’s sitting above the Great Lakes: “It’s a target-area in a sense for the rest of the country. Because there’s so much fresh water, you can imagine that 50 years from now, well, we’re already talking about this, but 50 years from now there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix.  I think that’s part of our future.”

Famiglietti said that this could only happen with federal intervention, pointing out that the U.S. currently has no national water policy.  The need for such a policy is important because the northern half of the country has a lot more water than the southern half.  As our population grows and the climate continues to change, he suggests that we will probably have to move water from where it is to where it is not, and that will require some rethinking of policies and laws.

“Don’t think the idea of a raid on Great Lakes water is that far-fetched. Plans were in the works to allow a Canadian company to sell Lake Superior water to Asia via tanker ships as recently as 1998, opined Free Press environment writer Keith Matheny in a 2015 article referencing Great Lakes water diversion.   “A coal company in 1981 wanted to pipe Superior water to Wyoming to move its semi-liquefied product back to the Midwest. And in 1982, Congress mandated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study the feasibility of using Great Lakes water to replenish supplies needed for the heavily agricultural Plains states (it wasn’t feasible.)”

After learning about Famigliett’s latest pipe dream, some environmental leaders and academics question the amount of energy and expense it would take to move water vast distances. Liz Kirkwood, executive of the Traverse City-based nonprofit, “For Love of Water” (FLOW), which works to protect the Great Lakes, told the Free Press that the tens of billions of dollars such a project would require might make the Southwest look for a larger, closer water supply like the Pacific Ocean.  That would be a more logistically feasible and affordable option through use of large-scale desalinization.

The world’s largest body of surface fresh water has come under attack twice in as many months, as President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget launched a broadside missile on the Great Lakes by proposing a 97% cut—from $300M to only $10M—for the bipartisan, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.   

In 2004, President George W. Bush issued the executive order designating the Great Lakes a “national treasure” and creating the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force—a group of eleven members that head federal agencies—responsible for coordinating the restoration of the Great Lakes.  In 2010, President Obama and the U.S. Congress funded the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

A year later, a group of industry leaders, non-governmental organizations, businesses, local government officials, tribes, and citizens all gathered together to craft a regional restoration plan—the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. That plan and its shared set of restoration priorities—including preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species, stopping runoff, cleaning up toxic pollution, and restoring habitat loss—would serve as a roadmap for future federal restoration investments when funding from the GLRI became a reality.  Scientists suggest cutting the program at this point would create loss never to be recovered.

Proposals to divert water from the Great Lakes created such an outcry that the Great Lakes Compact was formed, approved by all Great Lakes states, the U.S. Congress, and then signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.   Eventually the states also convinced two Canadian provinces to join the compact after then Quebec’s environment minister—Thomas Mulcair (2004)—suggested that his province should consider exporting some of its water.

“[If] I can export, and I’m capable of ensuring the sustainability of the resource, and it could bring something to the region, why wouldn’t I do it?” Mr. Mulcair told Quebec’s National Assembly. “This is a renewable natural resource, unlike a mine. … If we manage it properly, if we take care of it as we should, why can’t we even talk about it?”  Mr. Mulcair says he recanted those views after entering federal politics in 2007, and now opposes exports, according to the Globe and Mail.

The Compact bans the diversion of Great Lakes water beyond the basin, with limited exceptions—a community that is located partially in the Great Lakes basin or a community within a county that is partially in the basin, may apply for a diversion.  “The Great Lakes hold nearly 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. And, more astonishingly, the Great Lakes hold more than 90% of North America’s fresh surface water,” points out the non-profit, Alliance for the Great Lakes.  “But, this water is not unlimited. It can be depleted if we don’t take care to keep Great Lakes water in the lakes.”

According to the Alliance, “Any community applying for a diversion must demonstrate that it has exhausted all available options for getting water. In other words, a diversion must be a last resort.  Any diversion application must be approved by all eight Great Lakes states. The two Canadian provinces bordering the lakes are allowed to provide input as well. Any state may veto the diversion application.”  The alliance adds that the Compact also requires each Great Lakes state and province to set up water management programs to ensure that the water we have is used wisely.

There’s no guarantee that the Compact couldn’t be dissolved by a future president and Congress to allow for more water diversion, but that is highly unlikely.  In addition to the compact’s requirements that all parties agree to a large-scale diversion, Frank Bevacqua—a spokesman for the International Joint Commission—told the Free Press that a boundary waters treaty between the U.S. and Canada enacted in 1909 also requires the agreement of both countries before any action is taken that impacts the shared waters.

The compact does include a controversial “loophole” allowing for water removal from the basin in containers of 5.8 gallons or less, often called the “bottled water exemption.” The bottled water issue came to a head in 2002, when Nestle Waters North America began operating its Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Mecosta County, west of Mt. Pleasant.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had approved Nestlé’s plan to pump up to 400 gallons of groundwater per minute or 14 times the amount of bottled water that is withdrawn and shipped elsewhere, far above the Compact’s allowable extraction.

A grassroots group, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, sued Nestle and won in circuit court. But the Michigan Court of Appeals stayed the lower court ruling in 2003. The Citizens group and Nestle reached a settlement roughly halving the plant’s allowed groundwater extraction at 218 gallons of water per minute.

Those concerned about the future of the Great Lakes would be wise to monitor efforts to design a national water policy before it becomes a political nightmare that can’t be stopped.  Often the best defense is the best offense.  In this case, that would require designing our own policy to protect the Great Lakes while strengthening the compact.

For proof, one need only look at the current political debate over President Trump’s proposed 97% ($290 million) budget cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in a Congress where too many hardly know the Great Lakes even exist. 

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

April 13, 2017 · Filed under Winter



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