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The Great Lakes Water Drain

As industry continues to unravel around the Great Lakes we may be left with precious little manufacturing. But what else is left is precious indeed—water, or as some call it “blue gold.” And, that will be up for grabs, too. Others salivate over our treasure. The Great Lakes hold approximately 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, some 5,500 cubic miles of it. It represents over 90 percent of the fresh water in our country. Fresh water is becoming a high demand commodity. Thirty-six states report they expect to have water shortages in the next ten years and a few states are already experiencing this shortage.

Unfortunately, water is already being pulled from the Great Lakes. One of the most notable examples is the Chicago diversion that literally reversed the flow of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers using water from the Great Lakes. The diversion protects Chicago’s drinking water obtained from Lake Michigan, as effluent is carried by the Chicago and Calumet on to the Mississippi. Prior to the diversion, effluent ran into Lake Michigan, resulting in a cholera epidemic that killed nearly a tenth of the city’s population in 1885. The Chicago diversion is of note because it was reportedly used in the 1950’s and again in the 1980’s to divert more water from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River because drought conditions resulted in navigational problems.

The feasibility of moving Great Lakes water to other regions has been under study for some time. One suggestion is to use giant pipelines, much like the one moving oil from Alaska. Another suggestion is to transfer Great Lakes water through existing waterways. It is also possible that we could lose Great Lakes water due to international trade laws.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson had, according to the Detroit Free Press, remarked this past October how the Great Lakes were “awash in water” that could be used in the West. Quickly, his campaign dismissed the remark, with Richardson’s press secretary, Tom Reynolds, stating that the candidate in no way proposes federal transfer of water from one region of the nation to the other. Pressure on Congressional representatives from the South and West to share the Great Lakes as a national resource could be substantial because more and more Americans are moving to those parts of the country, which could face water shortages in the coming years.

The 2010 census is expected to result in a substantial shift in state representation in Congress. States expected to show the greatest growth include Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. It is anticipated that the South will gain six congressional seats, as will the West. Expect these congressional representatives to be responsive to the needs of their constituents, not to those living in the Great Lakes region.

The Midwest is expected to lose seven seats, and the Northeast five seats. Ohio, in particular, most likely will lose two seats, according to POLIDATA, a political data firm. Not everyone feels the need to protect their water resources from outside markets. The state of Alaska has been exploring ways of exporting its water to the Southwest. Tugboats could haul 75 million gallons of water in huge bags for as little as $1.50 per thousand gallons, reported in the Rochester News. The article quotes Robert Engelman of Population Action International as remarking, “You can’t think of the Great Lakes as a giant canteen. The world could drain them surprisingly fast.”

If the Great Lakes is a canteen, it’s one with a couple of holes in it, and the cap isn’t on very tight. Every day the Great Lakes loses some 237 billion gallons of water through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Chicago diversion claims another 2 billion gallons. Evaporation alone is estimated to be between 55 billion and 110 billion gallons a day. By comparison, a tanker the size of the Exxon Valdez can hold approximately 53 million gallons. Larger tankers hold up to 75 million gallons. And, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline can deliver roughly 4 million gallons an hour.

Before members of Congress, governors and other legislators from dry regions of the country come up with a plan to divert the Great Lakes water to their region, maybe we should hold a series of symposiums and discussions in our own backyard with interested parties first. Maybe it’s time to go over various scenarios and review options as to what might happen to our water—before it becomes their water.

Robert Loeffler writes on business topics and teaches business administration at Notre Dame College.


February/March 2008 Contents