Straw in Hand, Water-Strained City Thirstily Eyes Great Lakes

More like inland seas than lakes, the Great Lakes contain six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, 20% of the world's above ground  supply.
More like inland seas than lakes, the Great Lakes contain six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, 20% of the world’s above ground supply.

Be careful, Waukesha, Wisconsin. Some lawmakers have actually threatened to cash in their favors to the Michigan Militia to keep aquifer-drained areas from sticking a straw in Lake Michigan to compensate for a drained aquifer like you guys are. Waukesha, faced with a depleted aquifer and rising concentrations of carcinogenic radium in the water, is drafting plans to draw 9 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan. The problem? Even though they’re 27 miles from Lake Michigan, they’re still a mile and a half west of the Great Lakes watershed. They’re technically on the Mississippi side of the sub-continental divide. And remember that bit about the Michigan Militia?

“I would suspect we’d call up the militia and take up arms.” That’s an impassioned  2007 quote from Michigan Republican congressman Vern Ehlers during a national water policy debate that seemed to entertain the notion of Great Lakes water diversions to water-stressed regions of the country. Adding gasoline to the fire, Bill Richardson, presidential candidate and Governor of New Mexico, made the mistake of calling for a national water policy saying “I believe that Western states and Eastern states have not been talking to each other when it comes to proper use of our water resources, I want a national water policy… States like Wisconsin are awash in water.”

Just imagine the blaze of outrage in the Great Lakes states as a presidential candidate seemed to thirstily eye up the Great Lakes while whipping out a large straw.

Despite intractable political differences, you can safely bet Michigan lawmakers will come together as a phalanx on one thing: Protecting Great Lakes water supplies from outsiders. With Great Lakes levels already at historic lows, damaging ecosystems and threatening shipping, combined with news of drought and empty aquifers nationwide, there’s a very real concern about water diversions, sucked out from a pipeline to drought ravaged parts of the country.

That’s why in 2008 the eight Great Lakes states formed a legally binding Great Lakes Compact, joined by two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Ontario, to create a framework to manage water in the Great Lakes water basin. Basically, the Great Lakes Compact is part of an effort among Great Lakes states and provinces to protect the Great Lakes from water diversions. They can veto each other’s water diversion requests.

Cities like Waukesha have a pretty good case. They will be cleaning the waste-water and returning most of the water to the Great Lakes water shed. And better yet, they plan to return it via a drying river that’s been an important Wisconsin fish hatchery. The city’s proposal may be accepted.

But who’s next? What unbearable and cruel water shortage tragedy will come up next? Las Vegas? Phoenix? Climate change and drought are leaving whole regions with depleted aquifers. The Ogallala aquifer in the Texas panhandle is severely strained. Demand is on track to outstrip supply in Lake Mead and the Colorado River, already dangerously low. When national tragedy strikes and water levels evaporate, eyes will naturally fall on the six quadrillion gallons of fresh water we call the Great Lakes. With the city of Waukesha, that day has arrived.


[Photo Credit:  NASA Goddard Photo and Video – Source]

Eric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys.As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food.Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.

9 responses

  1. The Great Lakes Compact absolutely prohibits Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas from getting Great Lakes water. No one outside of counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin divide is eligible. That debate is over.

    Waukesha will put 100% of the volume it withdraws back in the Great Lakes are use and treatment, setting a positive precedent for no impact on lake levels. The daily withdrawal, by the way, would be 1/1 millionth of 1% of the water in the Lakes — and then all returned.

    1. The issue for Las Vegas is the same as the issue with Waukesha. Diversions are at the discretion of the member states….if the member states allow diversions in Waukesha, then water diversions are allowed in Waukesha. If the member states choose to allow diversions to Las Vegas, then water diversions to Las Vegas area allowed.

    2. Eric J is wrong on both posts. The Compact requires about 85% be returned. Waukesha will exceed that and return 100%. The Toronto Star story was wrong when it said 85% would be returned. Also, the Compact does not allow water to go to anywhere past communities in counties that straddle the Great Lakes Basin divide, with or without the approval of the Governors. And that is federal law. There is no way for Great Lakes water to go to Iowa or Nevada or overseas.

      1. I’ll cede you’re correct that Waukesha is on the compact’s legal definition of a “Straddling community” – a community within a straddling county.

        However the compact does allow for intra-basin transfers too, with similar special conditions as applying to the straddling communities and subject to the states.

        I severely doubt a 100% return. Unless of course Waukesha is piping their own radium enriched ground water, treating it and then dumping it into the river to make up for the evaporation and “consumptive loss”….and who knows, maybe they are.

        Ultimately the case of Waukesha is setting a precedent for exceptions. And a dangerous one.

        The case of Waukesha needs to be treated very carefully and not rubber stamped.

        1. Wrong again. Inter basin means between two Great Lakes basins, not to a basin outside of the Great Lakes.

        2. I’m aware of that.

          I’m showing that there are Multiple exceptions to the diversions.

          The most GENERAL of which is the 4th legal exception, the generic “exception standard”

  2. Waukesha county, generally speaking, is also a classic case example of unplanned suburban sprawl with little or no thought put into the basic concept of sustainability. If they are to receive any water it ought to be full of conditions making development more sustainably minded.

  3. The exotic responsible for wreaking more havoc on the Great Lakes
    fisheries than any other is the sea lamprey. A new barrier/trap on
    Orwell Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River, the greatest coldwater
    stream in the Lower 48 States, promises to bring this parasite a giant
    step closer to eradication.

    Native to the Atlantic Ocean, these eel-like critters originally
    invaded the Great Lakes and NY’s largest Finger Lakes in the 19th
    century via the Erie Canal.

    Armed with a round mouth filled with sharp teeth, these aquatic
    vampires attach themselves to fish and suck out their body fluids. An
    ambitious adult can kill up to 40 times its weight in trout annually.

    sea lamprey belongs to a primitive group of jawless fishes called
    Agnathans. It feeds on other fish using a suction disk mouth filled with
    small sharp, rasping teeth and a file-like tongue. (Photo by Diane
    Carlton, NYSDEC.)

    The good news is that not all victims die; the bad news is an attack
    leaves survivors with unsightly scars, rendering them undesirable for
    table fare, let alone photos and wall mounts.

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