The Great Lakes are the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world and America’s greatest freshwater resource. For over a century they have been the target of controversial diversion schemes designed to sell, send, or ship water to thirsty communities, sometimes far from the source. In part to protect the Great Lakes from overzealous entrepreneurship, the Great Lakes Compact was signed in 2008. Although the Compact fulfills that promise and ensures that Great Lakes water stays within the Basin, some would say it has only shifted the controversy closer to home. Now water diversion controversies of a different kind are some of the most fought-over environmental issues in the region. Will the water wars ever be settled? Journalist Peter Annin delves deeply into the fraught history of water use in the Great Lakes region and recaps the story of the Chicago River diversion, which reversed the flow of the river, fundamentally transforming the Great Lakes ecosystem. A century later it remains “the poster child of bad behavior in the Great Lakes.” Today, with growing communities and a warming climate, tensions over water use are high, and controversies on the perimeter of the Great Lakes Basin are on the rise. In this new and expanded edition of The Great Lakes Water Wars, Annin shares the stories of New Berlin and Waukesha, two Wisconsin communities straddling the Basin boundary whose recent legal battles have tested the legislative strength of the newly signed Compact. Annin devotes a new chapter to the volatile issue of the invasive Asian carp—a voracious species that reproduces at a disturbing rate—which is transforming the ecology of the river as it makes its way through the Chicago River diversion and ever closer to Lake Michigan. With three new chapters and significant revisions to existing chapters that bring the story up-to-date over the past decade, this is the definitive behind-the-scenes account of the people and stories behind hard-fought battles to protect this precious resource that makes the region so special for the millions who call it home.
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About the Author
Peter Annin is a veteran conflict and environmental journalist who spent more than a decade reporting on a wide variety of issues for Newsweek. He currently serves as codirector of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.
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To Have and Have Not
We have left the century of oil and entered the century of water. That's not to say that automobiles will be powered by water soon, but rather that, increasingly, water will supplant oil as the defining natural resource of the next one hundred years. While it's true that nearly 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 is thus unavailable. That means less than 1 percent of all the surface water on earth is accessible, potable fresh water.
Every day much of the world is reminded of just what a precious resource fresh water can be. Approximately 780 million people around the world today do not have access to clean drinking water, and the United Nations estimates that 1,000 children die daily due to unhealthy water conditions. The UN adds that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population could be "water stressed" — 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, and sanitation is abysmal. Five countries — India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Pakistan — account for 75 percent of the world's population that practices what the UN refers to as "open defecation." Yet when people finally do obtain traditional flush toilets, their water consumption can skyrocket, prompting international foundations to invest in new toilet technologies for the developing world. During the next one hundred years, the globe will be increasingly divided into the water "haves" and "have-nots." "Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit," warns the UN. "By 2050, global water demand is projected to increase by 55 percent."
In 2015, São Paulo, Brazil — the largest city in the Western Hemisphere — was hammered by a severe drought that attracted global attention and raised the prospect of a major water crisis in one of the world's largest cities. By 2016, the city of 12 million people had rebounded, but questions remain about the sustainability of its water supply. As São Paulo was cycling out of the water headlines, Cape Town, South Africa, cycled into them. In 2018, the city of 4 million people announced that it had only a few months' water left in its reservoirs and began referring to the time when the water would run out as "Day Zero" — when water service to homes and businesses would stop. The announcement created hoarding, water lines, and a ration of thirteen gallons of water per person per day. Cities like Cape Town use a lot of water, but farms use much more. Agriculture is the single largest consumer of water in the world, by far. That trend is expected to continue as the world works overtime to feed its burgeoning population. A key question during this century will be whether water-efficiency technologies will be able to offset any increases in agricultural water consumption. Regardless, it's hard to imagine any solution to the global water crisis without agriculture at the table.
As water scarcity becomes an increasingly divisive political issue, water tension will inevitably rise. Many experts believe that water scarcity and drought played a major role in the recent Syrian civil war, helping to destabilize the entire region and creating a new breeding ground for terror groups like the Islamic State. The Syrian drought pushed more than a million desperate farmers and their families into urban areas, contributing to the eventual chaos. "The combination of very severe drought, persistent multiyear crop failures, and the related economic deterioration led to very significant dislocation and migration of rural communities to the cities," reports Peter Gleick, a global water expert at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. "These factors further contributed to urban unemployment and economic dislocations and social unrest."
As global water friction grows, unprecedented domestic and international pressure is expected to be directed at water-rich regions, leading to political, economic, social, and environmental stress. In particular, many of these water- abundant areas worry that they will be pressured to divert water from major lakes and rivers in order to subsidize unsustainable water practices elsewhere, possibly at great cost to local water-dependent ecosystems. As a result, water diversion — artificially transporting water from its native basin to some other place — has become increasingly controversial. This is an enormously important issue for areas like the Great Lakes region of North America. The Great Lakes hold roughly 20 percent of all the fresh surface water on earth — more than half of that is in Lake Superior alone. Large lakes everywhere could face increased pressure, because — from a global water-quantity standpoint — they are where the action is. Robert Sterner, director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, estimates that the five largest lakes in the world hold more than half of the globe's available fresh surface-water supply.
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 Mr. Gleick. "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 Mr. Gleick keeps a running list of water tension around the world in what is perhaps the most comprehensive water-conflict chronology ever compiled. The list, available on line, goes on and on for pages, citing numerous incidents between 3000 BC and today in which water either was used as a military tool, was targeted by military opponents, or otherwise became a source of tension. The water conflicts highlighted on Mr. Gleick's list range from California to China. Here's a quick snapshot of some noteworthy examples:
A series of bombings in California between 1907 and 1913 were designed to prevent the diversion of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.
The Arizona National Guard was mobilized in 1935 during a dispute with California over water in the Colorado River.
Riots broke out in 2016 in northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa after a severe drought sparked a dispute over water access.
That same year, two people died and others were injured during water riots in Bangalore, India, after the nation's Supreme Court ordered water released from dams on the Cauvery River.
Asia, a continent that holds 60 percent of the world's population but only 36 percent of the world's water, has many of the most volatile global water hotspots. 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-tenth 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. "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 $63-billion scheme known as the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which is designed to move trillions of gallons per year through hundreds of miles of canals and tunnels from the Yangtze River in the south to thirsty sections of northern China, including Beijing.
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 multimillion-gallon, PVC- coated fabric bags that are towed through the sea to transport fresh water from places like Suriname in South America to more-parched venues like Barbados and Curaçao. The bags can hold as much water as an Olympic swimming pool, and they are towed behind tugs to water-stressed communities, where they are then emptied, and the water is distributed to customers. Scarcity drives up prices, and it's the growing preciousness of clean, reliable fresh water that is ramping up its value to the point where these kinds of speculative adventures can even be considered. Large multinational corporations have 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 growing role of international corporations in the delivery of bottled, bulk, and municipal water has spawned a heated debate about whether water in its natural state is an economic commodity or something that is held in the public trust that people have a "human right" to access. There is concern among some experts that international trade protocols could interpret water in its natural state as a "good," which could complicate efforts by some communities to protect their local water resources from international exploitation. 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 world's largest gatherings of water aficionados of all stripes. Many international legal experts say that the global 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, farmers in Montana have been arguing, off and on, with their colleagues in Alberta over water rights to the Milk and St. Mary Rivers for a century. Farther west, in the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and northern California, farmers, tribes, environmentalists, and state and federal officials have been fighting over water since 2001 after an endangered-species issue curtailed water access and threatened livelihoods. California experienced a drought of biblical proportions from 2011 through 2017. The first four years of the drought were the driest in recorded history. Years before the drought hit, the federal government was forced to wrest Colorado River water away from regional farmers so that their water could be redistributed piecemeal to sprawling metropolitan areas like San Diego. In south-central Arizona, an overdrawn aquifer has created a cone of depression near the town of Eloy, where the soil has slumped more than twelve feet, creating mile-long cracks that have split the interstate highway and sliced deep into the earth. 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. In the Southeast, in the Apalachicola–Flint River Basin, the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have been suing each other in federal court for a quarter century over water issues that affect millions from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico. Water became so scarce there in 2007 that Georgia governor Sonny Perdue held a prayer vigil for rain on the state capitol steps, drawing national attention. Farther up the Eastern Seaboard, the US Supreme Court intervened in a 2003 dispute between Virginia and Maryland over water in the storied Potomac River, and that was followed by a similar legal dispute over the Potomac more than a decade later that pitted Maryland against West Virginia. And in Massachusetts, the overtapped Ipswich River outside Boston repeatedly runs dry, when excessive withdrawals of the regional groundwater supply rob the waterway of its crucial base flow.
These hotspots have created an arc of water tension on the west, south, and east sides of the Great Lakes Basin. It is this arc of water tension that tends to drive the Great Lakes water-diversion debate — sometimes accurately and sometimes inaccurately. In virtually all of these problem areas populations are rising, which means that water stress is likely to get worse. 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. "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 US Department of the Interior, which has published a map entitled "Potential Water Supply Crises by 2025." The map shows the western half of the continental United States and highlights a large number of areas where the department predicts the likelihood of future water conflict as either "highly likely," "substantial," or "moderate." 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.
When it comes to water scarcity and usage, Las Vegas is in a category all its own. While Americans in general have some of the highest per capita water use in the world, Las Vegas residents consume more than twice as much as the average American — 205 gallons per day — and more than half of that water ends up on their lawns. (According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 70 percent of the city's household water consumption goes to "landscaping.") Yet the desert city remains one of the fastest growing in the nation and it is well known for its opulent water fountains and lush, irrigated golf courses — traits that make the city seem like a hard sell for some future interbasin water transfer. But in Vegas people aren't shy about suggesting such things. "Water is a commodity," says Hal Rothman, author of Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. "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 people nervous in the Great Lakes region — which some have referred to as the Saudi Arabia of water. Why? Because it implies that people in places like Las Vegas 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 itself 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 environmental 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. It is now one of the most oversubscribed rivers in North America, and regularly no longer flows to the sea. "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 20 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." (The Colorado River now supplies water to 30 million people.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Great Lakes Water Wars"
Copyright © 2018 Peter Annin.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note Prologue
PART I. Hope & Hopelessness Chapter 1. To Have and Have NotThe Great Lakes and the Gobal Water Picture Chapter 2. The Aral ExperimentAre There Lessons that the Great Lakes Can Learn from the Aral Sea's Desiccation? Chapter 3. Rising Temperatures, Falling Water?Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes Watershed Chapte 4. A History of DesireDiversion Fears Prompt Protective Measures in the Great Lakes Region
PART II. Battle Lines & Skirmishes Chapter 5. Reversing a RiverThe conflicted History of the Chicago River Diversion Chapter 6. Long Lac & OgokiTwo Large Diversions into the Great Lakes Affect the Entire Basin Chapte 7. Pleasing Pleasant PrairieA Wisconsin Town's Diversion Permit Prompts Lingering Questions Chapte 8. Sacrificing LowellAn Indiana Community's Request for Great Lakes water Is Denied Chapter 9. Tapping Mud CreekA Consumptive Use Case Tests the Great Lakes Charter Chapter 10. Akron Gets the NodAn Ohio Town Gets Great Lakes Water and Controversy Follows
PART III. New Rules of Engagement Chapter 11. The Nova Group & Annex 2001An Export Idea Sparks Calls for More Water Controls Chapter 12. Marching Toward a CompactPulling Together a Modern, Binding Water Management Accord Chapter 13. Waukesha WorriesA Wisconsin Suburb Emerges as the Next Diversion Battleground Chapter 14. Who'll Win the War?How Future Great Lakes Water Tensions Will Be Resolved
Epilogue: The Water Awakening
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