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Will drought-stricken West make a run at tapping the Great Lakes?

Photo courtesy of JIm Bloch. Are the Great Lakes in danger of being tapped by the thirsty West? Above is Port Huron's Lakeside Beach on Lake Huron.

By Jim Bloch

The states bordering the Great Lakes have an agreement in place designed to protect the lakes, rivers and groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin from being siphoned off to other areas of the country.

It’s known as the Great Lakes Compact. It was approved by the eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. Congress in 2008 and President George Bush subsequently signed it into law. The compact bans all water diversions from the Great Lakes except in two narrowly defined cases: A community that sits partially in the basin may apply for a diversion, and a community located within a county that sits partially in the basin may apply to use Great Lakes water.

All eight states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York — must approve the diversion. Any single state may veto the proposal.

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That means the prospect of huge water pipelines from Lake Superior or Lake Michigan/Huron, which is hydrologically a single lake, to drought-stricken states in the West — think California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and their 13 other neighbors — is prohibited.

Is it possible that sheer need — coupled with raw political power — could neuter the Compact and lead to the tapping of the greatest freshwater resource in the nation by the West? The Great Lakes, after all, are home to 90 percent of the surface fresh water in the country and 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

One thing is certain. The need and thirst for water in the West is huge and growing.

The mega-drought in the West

The southwest U.S. has been locked in a mega-drought for more than two decades, the driest the region has experienced in 1,200 years, according to Climate Central, which describes itself as “an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.”

In March, the organization released a state-of-the-drought report that attempted to capture the magnitude of the problem, which climate change is aggravating.

The Rocky Mountains and the other ranges in the west function as water towers for the entire region, building up massive snowpacks in the winter that fill the rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater aquifers in the spring when the snow melts.

“But warmer, dryer winters mean smaller snow reserves that melt earlier and need to stretch longer into the warm seasons when the region’s water demands peak,” according to the report, entitled “Water in the West.”

Snow provides about half of all the freshwater used in the West. But the snowpack has declined steadily since 1950.

A paper published in the journal Nature on Valentine’s Day suggests that the current drought would be 42 percent less intense without human-caused global warming.

Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was created 86 years ago with the construction of the Hoover Dam, which interrupted the flow of the Colorado River. Lake Powell is at its lowest point since its creation 56 years ago, when Colorado was dammed below Glen Canyon, filling it to become the country’s second-largest reservoir after Lake Mead.

Climate change has meant a 30-50 percent decline in the streamflow of the Colorado River.

Groundwater is also being depleted. About 20 percent of the wells used for irrigation in Central California, home to the country’s most productive fruit and vegetable farmlands, now run dry during the peak periods of drought.

Tapping the Great Lakes

Peter Annin, author of the 2018 book “Great Lakes Water Wars,” thinks that it’s unlikely that the West will tap the lakes, largely thanks to the Compact.

“While the Mississippi and Missouri rivers continue to be invoked as water-diversion alternatives, for the most part, the Great Lakes have fallen to the sidelines in those conversations,” Annin writes.

But national emergencies, such as major Western cities without water, have a tendency to trigger changes in federal policy and law.

The lakes will continue to whet water dreams.

Annin quotes Pat Mulroy, a water policy expert at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who argues that the Compact is politically selfish.

“We take gold, we take oil, we take uranium, we take natural gas from Texas to the rest of the country,” Mulroy said. “We move oil from Alaska to Mexico, but (the Great Lakes officials) say, ‘I will not give you one drop of water!’ They’ve got 14 percent of the population of the U.S. and 20 percent of the fresh water in the world — and no one can use it but them?”

For more than a dozen years, the U.S. Congress has been spending more than $300 million per year to clean up the lakes through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a total of $3.8 billion, 2010-2021.

Mulroy could easily argue that since all Americans have paid to clean up the lakes, shouldn’t they be entitled to some of the water?

“When did it become their water anyway?” asked Mulroy.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at 

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