The Great Lakes Water Wars

The Great Lakes Water Wars

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by Peter Annin

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The Great Lakes are the largest collection of fresh surface water on earth, and more than 40 million Americans and Canadians live in their basin. Will we divert water from the Great Lakes, causing them to end up like Central Asia's Aral Sea, which has lost 90 percent of its surface area and 75 percent of its volume since 1960? Or will we come to see that unregulated


The Great Lakes are the largest collection of fresh surface water on earth, and more than 40 million Americans and Canadians live in their basin. Will we divert water from the Great Lakes, causing them to end up like Central Asia's Aral Sea, which has lost 90 percent of its surface area and 75 percent of its volume since 1960? Or will we come to see that unregulated water withdrawals are ultimately catastrophic? Peter Annin writes a fast-paced account of the people and stories behind these upcoming battles. Destined to be the definitive story for the general public as well as policymakers, The Great Lakes Water Wars is a balanced, comprehensive look behind the scenes at the conflicts and compromises that are the past-and future-of this unique resource.

Editorial Reviews


"Well-written volume...offers an intriguing, comphrensive look...and should be a valuable reference for water and international policy makers, academics, and public officials . . . . Highly recommended."
"We are definitely leaving the century of oil behind, and we are entering the century of water. The value globally of fresh, potable water is expected to increase significantly. "
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Excellent primer for getting up to speed on what could be one of the region's most important—and contentious—issues in the coming decades."
Toledo Blade - Tom Henry

"Fascinating and ambitious book . . . . Annin . . . breathes life into the subject of water laws and their related policy."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Dan Egan

“Excellent primer for getting up to speed on what could be one of the region's most important - and contentious - issues in the coming decades.”

Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona College of Law - Robert Glennon
"Peter Annin has put his considerable skills as a journalist to good use. The Great Lakes Water Wars is elegantly written, clearly and logically organized, and anchored to a set of marvelous stories. It is the definitive book on the struggle over the Great Lakes."
Toledo Blade
"Fascinating and ambitious book . . . . Annin . . . breathes life into the subject of water laws and their related policy."
"Well-written volume...offers an intriguing, comphrensive look...and should be a valuable reference for water and international policy makers, academics, and public officials . . . . Highly recommended."
codirector, Water Resources Center and Professor of environmental chemistry, University of Minnesota - Deborah L. Swackhamer
"This is a thoroughly researched, well-balanced, and captivating history and analysis of the increasing tensions and possible solutions related to water use and diversion from the Great Lakes. It is both inspiring and a startling reminder of the Lakes' vulnerabilities. Everyone who lives in the Great Lakes Basin should read it; everyone who takes freshwater for granted should read it."
Professor, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point - Michael P. Dombeck
"Water is the life blood of the forty million people who live in the Great Lakes Basin. Great Lakes Water Wars is a captivating account of past challenges as well as the social, economic, and ecological challenges we must overcome as our insatiable thirst exceeds nature's ability to provide. It is a comprehensive and easy read, placing Great Lakes water woes in a global context. This book should be required reading for anyone whose life depends on Great Lakes water."
Professor, School of Law, Wayne State University - Noah Hall
"This is the definitive book about the fight over Great Lakes water. The book does for the Great Lakes what Ansel Adams' photos did for Yosemite—shows the world what a precious and irreplaceable resource the Great Lakes are, and why it is so important that they be protected."

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The Great Lakes Water Wars

By Peter Annin


Copyright © 2006 Peter Annin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-077-4


To Have and Have Not

IT HAS BEEN SAID that if the twentieth century was the century of oil, then the twenty-first century will be the century of water. While it's true that roughly three-quarters of the earth's surface is made up of water, all that blue space on the grade-school globe can be deceiving: 97 percent of the world's water is seawater—loaded with salt and unfit for drinking. The rest is drinkable, but two-thirds of that is locked up in the polar ice caps and unavailable. That means less than 1 percent of all the surface water on earth is accessible, potable freshwater. Every day much of world is reminded of just what a precious resource freshwater can be. More than a billion people—one-sixth of the world's population—do not have access to clean drinking water, and 2.1 million people die annually because of unsafe drinking-water conditions.3 By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to face water shortages—the vast majority of them in the developing world. Much of the world's population growth is occurring in areas where water is far from abundant. Global per capita water use has actually risen over time: during the last seventy years, as the world's population has tripled, water use has increased six-fold. During the next one hundred years the world will be increasingly divided into two groups: the water "haves" and the water "have-nots," and most of the have-nots will be in the world's poorest countries. "At the beginning of the twenty-first Century, the Earth ... is facing a serious water crisis," warned the United Nations in its 2003 report on world water development. "All the signs suggest that it is getting worse and will continue to do so unless corrective action is taken."

As water scarcity becomes a divisive political issue throughout the world, inevitably there will be a rise in water tension. As this political friction grows, unprecedented domestic and international pressure will be directed at water-rich regions, leading to severe political, economic, social, and environmental stress. This is an enormously important issue for areas like the Great Lakes Basin (fig. 1.1). The Great Lakes hold 18 percent of all the fresh surface water on earth—more than half of that in Lake Superior alone. During this era of increased water scarcity, some water-stressed communities in wealthy countries will be forced to consider serious conservation measures for the first time. People elsewhere will demand that water-rich regions "share" their resource with the rest of the world. Increased pleas for humanitarian water assistance are expected as well. All of these factors are bound to contribute to heightened global water anxiety. "In an increasingly large number of places scarcity of water resources is a problem—where populations and economic demand are really coming up against limited natural supplies," says Peter Gleick, a global water expert at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. "I don't like the term 'water wars' ... But water is increasingly a factor in conflict, and there's a long history of violence over water, and I think it's going to get worse."

Just how much fighting there has been over water is a matter of wide debate. But every two years, in his report on the world's water, Mr. Gleick updates what is perhaps the most comprehensive water conflict chronology ever compiled. The latest version of the chronology goes on and on for seventeen pages, listing scores of incidents between 3000 BC and the early part of the twenty-first century in which water was either used as a military tool, targeted by military opponents, or otherwise became a source of tension. Among the incidents on Mr. Gleick's list: (1) a series of bombings in California between 1907 and 1913 designed to prevent the diversion of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles; (2) the mobilization of the Arizona National Guard in 1935 during a dispute with California over water in the Colorado River; (3) an incident in August 2000 in which six people died after officials in China's southern Guangdong Province blew up a ditch to prevent a neighboring county from diverting water; and (4) violent riots that broke out in 2002 over controversial water allocations from India's Cauvery River.

Asia has become one of the most volatile global water hot spots, a continent that holds 60 percent of the world's population but only 36 percent of the world's water and where many rivers and aquifers are already oversubscribed. The Aral Sea, in the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is one of the most overtapped water systems in the world and is now one-fourth its original size. "This is a serious problem in a lot of different places, many of them in Asia where you have the biggest disparity in population and available water," says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. "That's translating into a fair amount of rivers running dry during long stretches of the year." China has responded to its significant water woes by embarking on a massive scheme known as the South-North Water Transfer Project, which plans to move 44 billion cubic meters of water per year via three different canals—spanning more than seven hundred miles each—from the Yangtze River Basin to water-hungry sections of northern China.

Massive water-transfer projects are nothing new of course; the Romans turned them into an art form. So has California. But one of the most unique methods of water transportation to emerge has been the giant five-million-gallon bags that are towed through the sea to transport freshwater from places like Turkey to Cyprus. Other proposals to transfer freshwater in giant bags along the west coast of North America have been met with controversy. But scarcity drives up price, and it's the growing preciousness of clean, reliable freshwater that is ramping up its value to the point where these kinds of speculative adventures can even be considered.

The bottled water sector has been leading the charge in the entrepreneurial water world for years, thanks to healthy growth rates since the early 1990s. Bottled-water sales reached $100 billion globally in 2004 even though bottled water generally costs one thousand times more than high-quality tap water and is often less regulated. Nestlé has long been a dominant player in the bottled-water industry, but PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have also aggressively entered the fray, thanks to profit margins that can far exceed those for soft drinks. Bottled water is a controversial issue in some parts of the Great Lakes region where there is growing concern about the localized effect that groundwater withdrawals can have on the levels and temperatures of cold-water lakes, springs, and streams. But since the Great Lakes Basin imports roughly fourteen times more bottled water than it exports, the controversy appears to have had little effect on sales.

What's remarkable is that bottled-water sales have seen some of their strongest growth rates in the developing world, where demand for clean water is greatest but where the population can least afford the added expense. Large multinational corporations have also increased their presence in the municipal water supply business, a move that has become controversial in the developing world because water supplies provided by for-profit corporations have sometimes resulted in rates that are beyond the reach of many customers. The developing world isn't the only place that private water companies have run into trouble. In the late 1990s, Atlanta asked the United Water company to take over the city's water service in a much-publicized twenty-year deal. Yet by 2003, Atlanta and United Water parted ways after a rocky four-year marriage. The divorce came after the company said it was losing $10 million per year in attempting to provide Atlanta's water service. Meanwhile, Atlanta's residents had grown tired of United Water's record, which included "boil only" alerts and brown water coming from household taps.

The growing role of international corporations in the delivery of bottled, bulk, and municipal water has spawned a heated debate about whether water is an economic good or something that is held in the public trust and that people have a human right to access. There is concern among some experts that international trade regimes like the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization protocols could interpret water as a "good." The divergent views on this issue regularly flare up at global water gatherings like the World Water Forum, a triennial event that is one of the largest gatherings of water aficionados of all stripes in the world. Many international legal experts say that the debate about whether water is a public resource or a private good remains unresolved.

While water scarcity is a serious problem in the developing world, it's a growing concern in North America as well. In fact, the Great Lakes Basin is literally surrounded on three sides by a wide variety of water scarcity and conflict. To the west, off and on for nearly one hundred years, farmers in Montana have been arguing with their colleagues in Alberta over water rights to the Milk and St. Mary rivers. Farther west, in the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and northern California, farmers squared off with the federal government in 2001 after an endangered species issue curtailed their water access and threatened their livelihoods. Meanwhile, in southern California, the federal government was forced to all but wrest Colorado River water away from regional farmers so their water could be piecemealed out to sprawling metropolitan areas in southern California. In south-central Arizona, an overdrawn aquifer has created a cone of depression near the town of Eloy; the soil has slumped more than twelve feet, creating mile-long cracks that have split the interstate and sliced deep into the earth. To the south, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Mexicans and Americans are arguing over the particulars of a 1944 treaty that sets strict limits on each nation's water rights. Meanwhile, to the southeast, in the Apalachicola River Basin, the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been suing each other in federal court since the early 1990s over water issues that affect millions from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico. Farther to the north, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in a dispute between Virginia and Maryland in 2003 over water in the storied Potomac River. And in Massachusetts, the overtapped Ipswich River outside Boston has been known to run dry, when overwithdrawals of the regional groundwater supply rob the waterway of its crucial base flow.

In virtually all of these areas, population is rising, which means that water tensions will only get worse, and serious water shortages will be exacerbated by the drought cycle. "The United States is heading toward a water scarcity crisis," predicts Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and author of Water Follies , an influential book about groundwater in the United States. "Our current water use practices are unsustainable, and environmental factors threaten a water supply heavily burdened by increased demand." One of the most sobering prognostications comes from the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 2003 the department published a map entitled "Potential Water Supply Crises by 2025" (fig. 1.2). The map shows only the western half of the continental U.S. and highlights a large number of areas where the department predicts the likelihood of future water conflict as either "highly likely," "substantial," or "moderate." Virtually every state on the map except South Dakota has some sort of a water trouble spot, with the most serious areas of concern being in Arizona, Texas, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Yet people continue to move to these arid parts of the country in droves, seemingly oblivious to the fact that sooner or later, something will have to change.

The most egregious example of this trend is in Las Vegas—the American city that more than any other represents a water mirage. Americans have some of the highest per capita water use in the world, and Las Vegas residents use more than twice as much as the average American. In 2004 an ABC News report noted that five thousand people have been moving to Las Vegas every month. The city is building scores of new schools and has hired thousands of new teachers to handle the influx of students. Las Vegas has been churning out so many new subdivisions that the police department must issue new road maps to its officers every few weeks. "Unless we begin making plans, people in Las Vegas are going to be spending almost as much on their water as they will be on the land on which their house is built," warns Patrick Shea, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The ABC report featured an intriguing statement from Hal Rothman, author of Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. "Water is a commodity," Mr. Rothman proclaimed. "It's a lot like oil. We use oil to heat Boston, but that oil doesn't come from Boston. It comes from Saudi Arabia."

Talk like that makes residents nervous in the Great Lakes region—the Saudi Arabia of water. Why? Because it implies that people can continue to live beyond their ecological means simply by importing water from someplace else. The problem is that water is not like oil. Ecosystems don't depend on oil for their survival; they count on water for that. If all the oil on earth disappeared tomorrow, the world would be a very different place, but it would survive. If all the water on earth disappeared, however, life would come to a screeching halt. Truth be told, the boom in Las Vegas—and in a lot of other southwestern cities—has come at a severe ecological cost: the decimation of the once-mighty Colorado River. Since the early 1900s, southwestern officials have treated the Colorado more like a workhorse than an ecosystem. "To some conservationists, the Colorado River is the preeminent symbol of everything mankind has done wrong," wrote Marc Reisner back in 1986 in his seminal book Cadillac Desert. "Even as hydrologists amuse themselves by speculating about how many times each molecule of water has passed through pairs of kidneys—[the Colorado] is still unable to satisfy all the demands on it ... [and though there are] plans to import water from as far away as Alaska—the twenty million people in the Colorado Basin will probably find themselves facing chronic shortages, if not some kind of catastrophe, before any of these grandiose schemes is built."

Outside the American Southwest, there is very little sympathy for the unsustainable water problems faced by that region. Great Lakes Canadians are perhaps the least sympathetic of all. "Knowledgeable Canadians understand that there is no water shortage in the U.S.," says Ralph Pentland, a Canadian water expert. The problem, Mr. Pentland says, is not a shortage of good water, but a shortage of good water management. "If you look at the Colorado Basin ... they have problems caused by eight decades of subsidization of dumb projects, plus a water law that doesn't make sense."

For decades, Canadians and Americans in the Great Lakes Basin have feared that the thirsty will come calling. The issue has always been, will the Great Lakes be ready for them? The topic is complicated by a wide debate within water circles about how much diversionary pressure the Great Lakes could realistically face as global water stress mounts. "I think the era of big, federal, subsidized water projects is over," declares Daniel Injerd, head of the Lake Michigan Management Section at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "I don't see a significant threat out there for Great Lakes water, probably not in my lifetime." Mr. Injerd's point is that diverting water over long distances is very, very expensive—so expensive that it's difficult to do without huge federal subsidies. So Mr. Injerd and many other water experts argue that an environmentally conscious America would never tolerate an enormously subsidized, multibillion-dollar diversion plan that ships water from one end of the nation to the other. His analysis is consistent with that of the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC was created by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help resolve water disputes between Canada and the United States. In a report released in 2000, the IJC acknowledged the diversion anxiety in the Great Lakes region, but after extensive study it declared that "the era of major diversions and water transfers in the United States and Canada has ended."


Excerpted from The Great Lakes Water Wars by Peter Annin. Copyright © 2006 Peter Annin. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A former correspondent with Newsweek magazine,Peter Annin is associate director of the Institutes forJournalism and Natural Resources.

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