Western and southern US states want to divert water from the Great Lakes to supply their growing populations but also to irrigate desert golf courses

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US and Canadian mayors work
together to protect Great Lakes

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

12 May 2008: There are five Great Lakes in northeastern US and southeastern Canada: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. Together with the St. Lawrence River, which extends from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, they contain 95 per cent of North America’s fresh water. However, the entire Great Lakes-St. Lawrence water system is under considerable stress, and mayors in the US and Canada are joining forces to try to ensure that this remarkable resource retains its value in the future.

Cities initiative | Threats to Great Lakes | Water shortages | Water diversion | Future action |
Cities initiative
In 2006, the mayors of about 150 cities located on these bodies of water formed the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI) to highlight the critical role cities play in water preservation.

In February 2008, the GLSLCI issued a report showing that local governments in the US and Canada invested an estimated US$15 billion annually to protect and restore the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, with $12 billion for water quality management and $3 billion for ecosystem protection. However, this level of spending does not meet current needs. A January 2008 report by the US Environmental Protection Agency documents an immediate $73 billion need for clean water infrastructure in the US Great Lakes alone, yet the US government spends less than $700 million annually.

“All our cities desperately need significant funding for water and wastewater infrastructure,” says Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “It’s time for the national government to step up and protect this precious natural resource.” Increased support from Washington is unlikely, however. The Bush administration has cut federal spending for wastewater infrastructure by 49 per cent since 2004, and additional cuts are proposed for 2009.

The Canadian government spends about US$300 million annually, or about seven times as much per capita as the US, yet Toronto Mayor David Miller has expressed frustrations with Canadian federal funding. “The national government doesn’t seem to understand the urgency and important of the Great Lakes,” he told The New York Times.

Urgency and importance of the Great Lakes
As a source of water for drinking, industry, agriculture, and recreation, as well as food, transportation, tourism, the importance of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence freshwater system is inestimable.

The system, however, faces serious threats.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin was once North America’s industrial heartland. Now it is known as the Rustbelt. Cities in the basin, especially US cities, have aging infrastructures and aging industrial sites on the waterfronts.

Sewage overflows are regular occurrences after heavy rains. Industrial pollution and contaminated beaches are a continuing problem. More recent threats include invasive species and lost wetlands.

Funds are needed to restore past damage and prevent future problems.

A potentially major future threat is water diversions. Fresh water supplies are dwindling in the American West and South, and US states surrounding the Great Lakes – from New York to Minnesota -- are under increasing pressure to divert water to dry parts of the country.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin created a furor in 2007 by suggesting that more water should be diverted from neighboring states to replenish Atlanta’s drinking water supply. The explosive growth of Atlanta is draining rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Federal officials were called in to mediate a “truce” between the bickering governors of those states over water rights.

Similar disputes are frequent in other rapidly-growing but parched states such as California, Texas, and Arizona.

Diversions of water from the Great Lakes are currently negligible. However, an increasing number of droughts and climate change from global warming may result in more arid conditions in southern, central, and western US. Moreover, the US population is expected to swell by 50 per cent – an additional 150 million people – in the next few decades, thus exacerbating water needs.

Causes of shortages
The primary causes of water shortages in the US are unsustainable agriculture and unsustainable development.

Beginning in the mid-1900s, as good farmland was covered by urban sprawl, the United States moved from rain-fed agriculture along the Atlantic Coast to an irrigation-based agriculture in the less-populated Midwest.

In the 1960s, in response to growing production overseas and unfavorable currency exchange rates, midwestern farmers switched from wheat to corn, a high water-demanding crop. In the 1990s, corn production – and water needs – increased to meet the demands of the growing market for corn-based ethanol.

Throughout the West, South, and Midwest, groundwater is pumped out to irrigate crops, aquifers are drying up, and farmers and politicians are looking to the Great Lakes as a source of water.

Governor Bill Richardson of fast-growing New Mexico has called for the diversion of Great Lakes water to dry areas of the country.

Population growth in New Mexico and other rapidly-developing states in the hot, dry South and West is driven by the sunny climate and booming economy. Water shortages have been a fact of life in these regions for decades.

Since the early 1900s, the mighty Colorado River has been diverted into California to keep that state going to the point that the river has almost no water flowing when it crosses the Mexican border. In August of 2007, the city of Orme, Tennessee ran out of water. Orme Mayor Tony Reames said his city’s situation is a warning to others, “All these people on river [water] systems better take note. Because once your mountain streams, your tributaries to the river start drying up, the river ain't far behind.”

The root problem in the South and West – and throughout the US – is that Americans have taken their natural resources, especially land, for granted.
Post World War II population growth has been housed primarily in raw-land development sprawl. Suburbs expand in drought-vulnerable areas. Golf courses and parks are kept green with potable water. The development community insists on building housing according to maximum-profit models.

The City of Las Vegas, Nevada, for example, is located in one of the driest parts of one of the driest states in the US. Yet, the image of Las Vegas is one of dazzling fountains, monstrous casinos, and world-class golf courses surrounding sprawling subdivisions.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman says he “has no concern over future water supplies.” Presumably, he assumes the federal government would never let Las Vegas run dry.

Right now, there is nothing to stop the federal government from diverting water from the Great Lakes to places like Las Vegas. All of the Great Lakes are shared between the United States and Canada except Lake Michigan, which is entirely in the US. The US government could simply leach water out of Lake Michigan, which it owns, and deliver it to arid regions.

Consequences of diversions
Water diversions from the Great Lakes on a large scale could have serious consequences. Taking water from Lake Michigan, for example, affects the discharges in the entire Great Lakes system.

A drop in water levels could cause fisheries in Canada to collapse. The production of hydroelectric power in New York and Quebec could also be negatively affected, as could Great Lakes shipping. Life forms could also be eradicated by changes in ground water or surface water. If streams that certain species use to breed in dry up, those species are unlikely to survive.

Future action
An International Joint Commission comprised of the eight US states and two Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes, proposed a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement -- a regional compact that would strengthen an existing ban on major water diversions outside the Great Lakes basin. The International Joint Commission, however, is a political organization with no enforcement power.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement must be ratified by the eight US states and two Canadian provinces that are members of the International Joint Commission. This hasn’t yet happened.

There are those who want who want a complete ban on Great Lakes water diversions outside the Great Lakes basin, and those who want the right to sell water. Proponents of selling water argue that the US federal government will not be able to resist big-money interests, and will divert the water anyway, without compensating affected states or provinces.  

The clock is ticking on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Ratification by the eight US Great Lakes states is important. While there is no mechanism to enforce the agreement, the US Congress traditionally respects interstate compacts.

However, representation in the US Congress is proportional, based on population, and the eight Great Lakes states are not growing as rapidly as states in the arid South and West. The Great Lakes states are expected to lose 10-15 seats in Congress when the next US census of population is conducted in 2010. The shift in representation represents a shift in power and influence from the Great Lakes states to southern and western states.

As former Congressional leader Dick Armey of Texas warned in 2000, thirsty and growing states will surely come after Great Lakes water, "We're not going to be buying it. We're going to be stealing it."

The US and Canadian mayors that comprise the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative are doing everything they can to call attention to the escalating threats to the resource, ongoing federal disinvestment, and state and provincial inaction.

“We have to get the message across,” says Racine, Wisconsin, Mayor Gary Becker, “that we all share the responsibility for this resource.”

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