Once seen as a region of endless water, the Great Lakes watershed is under stress thanks to inadequate water management, unrestrained growth and other pressures. Climate change stands only to make conditions worse, experts say, as increasingly thirsty neighbors look for additional water and changing weather harms quality and supply.
Out of such gloom, however, has emerged what analysts describe as a most significant feat: Earlier this year, after almost a decade of talks, local and state leaders throughout the Great Lakes set aside differences and agreed to coordinate the protection of this vast but finite resource.
The Great Lakes Compact, signed into law in October, controls transportation of Great Lakes water to parched areas outside the region. Thrust for this regional resolution came via fears of a 1998 plan by a Canadian firm to transport tankers of Lake Superior water to arid parts of Asia.
At the time, said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, there was no legal means to stop the proposal. The plan was later abandoned under heavy public criticism.
But its legacy may well be its role in forcing the region to recognize and revamp substandard water management.
The Compact’s passage, “means doing a whole bunch of things we should have been doing anyway, such as conservation, greater efficiency and valuing water better – especially with new, intense stresses from climate change.” said Noah Hall, an environmental law professor at Wayne State University
The region is home to one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water — a 201,000 square-mile ecosystem spread over eight states and two provinces. The lakes supply more than 40 million people with drinking water and waters 25 percent of Canada’s agriculture and 7 percent of U.S. farmland.
But the compact doesn’t solve all the region’s water problems.
The Great Lakes will suffer as the world warms, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Climate models forecast a significant decline in lake levels. Less ice cover and warmer temperatures will generate greater evaporation.
With water reductions at the surface, less will seep into aquifers below. Significant declines will pose economic challenges to commercial shipping, hydroelectric power plants and cities like Chicago.
Higher temperatures will also increase agricultural, environmental and household demand, said Kathleen Miller, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
About 41 billion gallons of water, roughly the global amount of bottled water consumed annually, were withdrawn from the five great lakes per day in 2004, according to the Great Lakes Water Use Database.
Areas outside the region may also look towards the Great Lakes as their water supplies diminish. Climate models predict drought-like conditions in the southwest for the remainder of the century, while legal battles over scarce water entangle the formerly water abundant states of Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“But a lot of what the Great Lakes Compact does is provide a strong legal defense to preserve water as outside areas clamor for it while grappling with climate change water shortages,” Hall said. Under the Compact, the eight Great Lakes’ states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec must all consent before any water is diverted outside the basin.
The compact will also insure long-term recreational and tourism opportunities and provide security to industries whose survival comes from a healthy, world-class ecosystem, Naftzger said.
The Great Lakes importance is felt nationally as a majority of steel production used in appliances, cars, skyscrapers and bridges originates from this region, Naftzger said.
“Steel depends on water from the Great Lakes for cooling and transportation of the raw material elsewhere,” he said.
As water becomes more scarce, a sustainably managed and valued freshwater resource may be the foundation for a renewal of the region’s economic opportunities.
The compact is still unproven, however. Proponents wait to see if the coordinated effort between state governments can accomplish what the Compact sets out to do, especially as water consumption increases and pressures from climate change mount.
Activists and some politicians fear that even with the passage of the compact there remain concerns over the commercialization of Great Lakes water. They cite a loophole that allows water bottlers and private industry to continue to export water in containers less than 5.7 gallons as evidence that the agreement does not go far enough.
U.S. Rep Bart Stupak argues that the compact’s reference to water as a commodity would open up the large-sale distribution of Great Lakes water.
Dave Dempsey, the Great Lakes policy advisor for Clean Water Action agrees.
“It boggles my mind that the compact would ban freighters of water being shipped out of the Great Lakes but would allow freighters of water in bottles to leave.”
Proponents argue bottled water companies make up a small fraction of overall withdrawals and that more bottled water is imported into the region than exported.
But the loophole allows for this fraction to grow tremendously, Dempsey said.
The compact also contains a humanitarian exemption to supply water to regions undergoing severe droughts and water shortages, Hall said. Yet it is not known how this exemption will be applied to ensure this temporary provision does not become permanent.
For now, many view discussions and action about water conservation and management in such a water-rich region as a significant start.
“People talk about running out of water but the truth is we have a relative abundance of freshwater,” Hall said. “But it has allowed us to be sloppy and wasteful in how we use our water. Protecting this resource and using it more efficiently is needed even more now with challenges such as climate change.”