By Kayla Nelsen
As the megadrought in the Western U.S. worsens, calls for freshwater diversions from the Great Lakes to the West have grown increasingly popular.
Last August, federal authorities announced a water shortage in Lake Mead, the largest source of freshwater for the Western states.
At the same time, protective actions have stagnated in the face of a warming climate.
Michigan author Dave Dempsey, who has worked in environmental policy for 40 years, took the threats as an opportunity to warn about the darkening fate of Great Lakes water. Dempsey, now a policy adviser for the nonprofit environmental group FLOW, recently updated his 2009 book, Great Lakes for Sale.
In light of the recent climate catastrophes in the West, the update addresses the lack of public action against the shortcomings of the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among the eight Great Lakes states about how to manage their use.
It explores possible humanitarian exemptions to the compact, while also arguing that protecting the Great Lakes from unnecessary diversions is far from over.
“People believe that the compact is a solution we don’t have to worry about, that Great Lakes water isn’t being taken away anymore,” Dempsey said. “But that’s not true. There’s a loophole large enough that you could drive a water truck through.”
The compact’s bottled water exemption allows bottling companies, like Nestlé, to divert the same mass quantities of water by first packaging it into water bottles, Dempsey said.
The Great Lakes account for 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater and 90 percent of North America’s supply. Other parts of the world are increasingly dependent on Great Lakes water as overall freshwater supply dwindles, Dempsey said. That scarcity tempts private companies to turn to freshwater as an economic venture more than ever.
“The most profane thing you can do to water is sell it,” Dempsey said. “It’s the source of life and selling the source of life is morally wrong.”
Water diversion from the Great Lakes harms not only the ecosystem, but also the cultural significance of water, he said. Since 2009, water diversion for profit has become normalized.
“I think over time, people have gotten numb to the idea of water as a product because we’ve been seeing it sold in bottles for 20 years or more now,” he said. “It’s a dangerous thing because water is the source of life.”
The update discusses steps needed to protect the Great Lakes. Dempsey introduces the concept of a “water ethic,” treating it as a sacred and special resource. Prioritizing a water ethic means conservation, wise management and protection from pollution and commodification, Dempsey said.
“Conserving water shows respect for water,” he said. “It shows that we perceive it as vital to our society.”
Water conservation isn’t just about efforts on an individual and policy levels, he said. A cultural paradigm shift is necessary to overcome the threats of commodification.
“I’m a policy person, but I don’t think we’re going to solve this with just new laws,” he said. “We need an awakening to the precious nature of water and its spiritual and human value.
“We take water for granted in our civilization and culture. We can’t live without it. We’re 60 to 70 percent water ourselves.”
Indigenous cultures in the Great Lakes Basin may hint at a solution. They view water as the sacred source of life. Learning from and amplifying such traditions would move society away from its Western view of water as a product, Dempsey said.
“We need citizens to be the guardians of the Great Lakes,” he said. “If we expect politicians to be the leaders, we’re going to lose everything. It’s the citizens who lead and the politicians who follow.”
Dempsey, who has held environmental policy positions with Gov. James Blanchard, the Michigan Environmental Council and the International Joint Commission, stepped down from his full time work in environmental policy Feb. 1 to become a part-time worker with FLOW. He plans to be more active on the community level in Traverse City, where he lives.
“The Great Lakes has been the center of focus in my career,” he said. “As I look back on 40 years of environmental policy work, I’m dissatisfied. I don’t think we’ve done enough to protect the Great Lakes. We’re still fighting some of the same battles as when I began.”
With public attention more focused on environmental crises, the Great Lakes for Sale update will hopefully be a wake-up call to the urgent need to protect freshwater, Dempsey said.
“One thing I’d like people to get out of the book is that the job is not done. We have lots more work to do to protect the Great Lakes.”
Dempsey’s updated version of Great Lakes for Sale, published by Mission Point Press, can be bought online and in most bookstores in paperback, hardback, and Kindle formats.