The Great Lakes are the lifeblood of our region’s economy and very identity, providing jobs, drinking water and recreation and sustaining a unique ecosystem. In return, those of us who live along the shores of the lakes must do everything we can to protect them.
When eight Great Lakes governors and representatives of the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec gather in Chicago this week, we urge them to seize the opportunity to help protect the lakes’ future by responding extremely conservatively to the first request in 24 years to divert water out of the Great Lakes basin. A final decision by the governors is expected in June.
In 2008, the eight Great Lakes states and Canada created the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact to protect the basin — an area that includes the lakes and and the watersheds and sources of runoff that flow into the lakes. At that time, one company already had plans to ship Great Lakes water via tankers to Asia.
That might not sound like a problem to someone standing on the shore of Lake Michigan and gazing at an inland freshwater sea that appears boundless. But the lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, are more fragile than they look. Only 1 percent of the Great Lakes water is recharged each year through rainwater and other sources. Pumping out more than that to serve areas outside the Great Lakes basin would be death by a thousand buckets. The lake might never recover, just as much of the once-vast Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union now is desert.
That would be disastrous to the more than 40 million people in the United States and Canada who depend on the lakes for drinking water and the 1.5 million whose jobs are tied directly to the lakes.
The request for water that the governors will consider comes from Waukesha, Wis., which is just outside the Great Lakes basin and which is under court order to improve its drinking water. Once known as “Spring City” for its natural springs, Waukesha did not handle its water sources in a sustainable manner. Instead it dug deeper into aquifers, eventually bringing up water with too much radium, a health risk that often is found in groundwater. The city of 70,000 residents has asked to suck 10 million gallons a day of water from Lake Michigan.
The Basin Water Resources Compact contains an exception for cities outside the Great Lakes basin that are experiencing a water crisis. But environmentalists say Waukesha doesn’t meet the requirements.
The National Wildlife Federation and the Alliance for the Great Lakes say Waukesha has failed to prove it has exhausted all reasonable options for getting water; has failed to prove it needs the water; included in its application other towns that don’t need the water and has a feasible alternative of treating the water it draws from deep and shallow wells to remove the radium. Of 11,200 messages gathered during a 60-day public comment period that ended in March, 98.5 percent were opposed to granting the diversion.
The Great Lakes will become increasingly vulnerable as climate change brings unpredictable droughts and other weather extremes, said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.
Waukesha’s water request is “precedent-setting,” Smith said. “The risk is lowering the bar and not meeting the standards set out in the Compact. It took many years to negotiate these standards, and talks broke down numerous times. Now, we have to get it right.”
Getting Canada and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York to create the Compact was a trailblazing achievement. Now, it’s important to ensure the agreement holds. The future of Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes depends on it.
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