While the West burns and the Southeast bakes, there is little to suggest a large-scale, climatological catastrophe playing out any time soon in the Midwest. In fact, farmers in Iowa and Minnesota had trouble last week harvesting their corn and soybean crops because there had been too much rain.
But potentially huge battles over water are looming in the Great Lakes region as cities, towns and states near and far fight for access to the world’s largest source of fresh surface water, the five Great Lakes.
Call them water wars, with the Great Lakes states -- and parts of Canada -- hunkering down to protect what they see as theirs.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate for president, gave voice to his water lust this month by suggesting that water from the Great Lakes could be piped to the rapidly growing -- and increasingly dry -- Southwest. “States like Wisconsin are awash in water,” Richardson told the Las Vegas Sun.
Richardson soon backed off after swift protests from the Midwest, including a resounding “no” from Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.
That won’t be the end of it.
The fires in Southern California, the prolonged drought in the Southeast and the shrinking flow of the Colorado River, which feeds seven Western states, have underscored the importance of water supplies in rapidly developing regions and the determination of a handful of states and provinces to hold on to a resource they see as key to their economic future.
With fresh water supplies dwindling in the West and South, the Great Lakes are the natural-resource equivalent of the fat pension fund, and some politicians are eager to raid it. The lakes contain nearly 20% of the world’s fresh water.
“You’re going to see increasing pressure to gain access to this water supply,” said Aaron Packman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.
Eight Great Lakes-area states, from Minnesota to New York, and two Canadian provinces have proposed a regional water compact. It would, among other things, strengthen an existing ban on major water diversions outside the Great Lakes Basin, home to 40 million Americans and Canadians. That proposal still has to work its way through several legislatures, and then it must go to Congress, where the political balance of power has been tilting west and south for decades.
Coveting Great Lakes water is not a recent development. In the past two decades, governors have effectively resisted attempts to divert water outside the basin. For instance, they joined forces with Canada in 1988 to block an effort by then-Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson to tap into the Great Lakes to help free up drought-stalled barge traffic on the Mississippi River.
Those are the loud fights, but there are also comparatively smaller but no less significant frictions among the states trying to protect the water, notably in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, which wants to pipe Lake Michigan water into its community because its drinking water wells show high levels of cancer-causing radium.
The Waukesha conflict stems from the city’s being outside the vast Great Lakes Basin, which means the Lake Michigan water it would use would not be returned to the lake; it would drain into the Fox River and ultimately find its way down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.
“There’s a concern that the thirsty in the Great Lakes region will set the precedent locally, even though they may be 5 or 10 miles outside the basin. But 20, 30 or 50 years from now, that precedent could be used to send water to far-flung reaches of the continent,” said Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.” “If you make the exception at 15 miles, what about 30 or 50 or 500 miles? That’s the fear,” Annin said.
A glaring precedent was set a century ago when Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River. The Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the legality of the Chicago diversion and, in 1967, opened the door to Chicago suburbs to receive Lake Michigan water, even though those communities are outside the Great Lakes Basin.
But in an age of water wars, Waukesha may be the most visible line drawn in the sand.
Water levels of the Great Lakes are down substantially. And while that may be part of the historic cycle of ups and downs, water managers argue that the region must jealously guard what is here. At the same time, more communities are discovering contamination of their drinking-water supplies.
A recent report forecast water shortages in northeast Illinois by 2020.
“We are the water belt of the nation, and we have a real opportunity to not only do the right thing environmentally but also have a sustainable management policy that makes tremendous economic sense for the region,” said Todd Ambs, water division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“I wouldn’t say we are awash in water, but there’s certainly enough [water] to have a strong economic driver,” Ambs said, to lure back businesses that left the region.
Gov. Granholm of Michigan fought with Nestle Waters North America over the company’s pulling millions of gallons from Lake Michigan for its Ice Mountain bottled-water franchise. The state has negotiated limits on the amount the firm can pump.
When he was House majority leader, former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) warned a gathering in Michigan that federal control of Great Lakes water would not be in the state’s interest.
“We’re not going to be buying it. We’re going to be stealing it,” Armey said in 2000. “You’re going to have to protect your Great Lakes.” That’s the incentive behind the proposed water compact. David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said he was optimistic that the water compact would be adopted by the eight states and approved by Congress.
“It’s our water and there’s an interest in ensuring that it is used sustainably,” Naftzger said.
Northwestern’s Packman said the issue that needed to be addressed was: “How many people do you want living in those water-short areas and how much agriculture do you want to support?”