Where Our Great Lakes Water Is Going

Living adjacent to the Great Lakes, the world’s largest surface freshwater system, it’s easy to think we have few worries when it comes to having enough water. But an historic drought in the western states is a reminder that water shortages are closer to home than we may think. Plans to pipe water from the Great Lakes to the far reaches of North America or even other continents may seem far-fetched, but there’s a long history of such efforts. As competition for water intensifies, so will attempts to move Great Lakes water. For this reasons, the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes states and provinces signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact 10 years ago to protect the lakes from large-scale diversions of water while also promoting wise water use throughout the region.


Now the Great Lakes Compact is facing its first big test. The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, located 17 miles west of Lake Michigan and just outside the Great Lakes Basin, wants to divert Lake Michigan water over the watershed border into the Mississippi River Basin. The compact was created for scenarios just like this, but what happens next will set a precedent for all future requests for Great Lakes water, so it’s critical to get it right. Representatives of the governors of all eight Great Lake states and the premiers of Quebec and Ontario will convene in April to discuss Waukesha’s request and recommend whether the governors should approve or deny it. Notably, it takes just one governor to veto the request, meaning each of the Great Lakes states has a voice in this momentous decision.


A provision in the compact makes Waukesha eligible to apply to divert Great Lakes water because it lies within a county that straddles the border of the Great Lakes Basin. Still, the city’s application seems to fall short of the compact’s strict and protective requirements. The Alliance and other Great Lakes policy groups oppose the request because Waukesha fails to demonstrate that it needs to divert Great Lakes water and has no other alternative. In essence, to be eligible for a diversion under the compact, it must be a community’s last resort. Independent analyses show Waukesha can meet its water needs and save upwards of $150 million by relying on existing water supplies, removing towns from the application that do not need water and following its own water conservation plans.


The Compact was put into place because the Great Lakes are unique and precious ancient reservoirs of glacial melt, a one-time, irreplaceable gift more than 10,000 years ago from Mother Nature. Experts have long warned that the greatest threat to these lakes would not be a single large request for water, but many little ones: “Death by 1,000 straws.” The Waukesha request may be that first straw, and the outcome will set the stage for all future requests for Great Lakes water. Area residents are already weighing in by writing their governors, attending meetings, posting online comments and even participating in a recent telephone town hall.


Jennifer Caddick is engagement director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, based in Chicago. For more information, call 312-939-0838 or visit GreatLakes.org.



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