By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham
The Great Lakes–at the U.S. and Canadian international boundary–are the planet’s largest system of freshwater (Government of Canada, 2016). The five Great Lakes (Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Erie) represent more than twenty percent of the world’s freshwater supply (Canadian Geographic, n.d.). This oft-repeated axiom, however, is somewhat misleading. A mere one percent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year in rain and snow-melt (Government of Canada, 2016). This supply cannot be carelessly utilised without destroying the stock. Freshwater systems are not inherently sustainable; water abundance is a myth.
Recent record low levels in three of the five Great Lakes have leaders to lawmakers to environmentalists sharing the common interest of conservation and restoration in the basin (Boyce, 2016). Nevertheless, a small Wisconsin city narrowly outside the basin is thirsty for Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s 70,000 residents can no longer drink from the city’s depleted aquifer. What little water remains is contaminated with naturally occurring cancer-causing radium. Though Waukesha is outside of the Great Lakes watershed, the city’s engineers can almost taste Lake Michigan’s water – they just need a pipeline or two. Certainly, one small city’s request for water beyond the Great Lakes watershed does not seem significant, but is it? What does this mean for the Great Lakes basin? And perhaps more poignantly, what does this potential test case mean for other thirsty American cities in the context of a changing climate?
More than 35 million people rely on the five Great Lakes (NOAA, n.d). Another 70,000 people drinking from a straw (or rather, a pipeline) seems somewhat inconsequential. The concern, therefore, is not necessarily about Waukesha; the concern is about who might be next. Las Vegas? San Francisco? Nearly all states west of the Rockies have experienced “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions in recent years (USDA, 2017). It seems Waukesha could be poised to become a precedent-setting test case for moving water beyond the basin.
Water vaulting is nothing new – the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Qaraqum Canal, South-to-North Eastern, and South-to-North Central are just a few very large water diversions that immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, freshwater scarcity is a global problem just beginning to touch North America. Climate change impacts on freshwater supply and quality will undoubtedly intensify in coming years. Changes in precipitation patterns, increases in temperature, evaporation, and sea level rise will continue to threaten lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. While climate scientists are quick to point out that no single event can be attributed to climate change, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm and society will be forced to adapt to these altered patterns.
Understandably, adaptation is difficult. O’Neill and Graham (2016) note that adaptation decisions associated with climatic changes pose challenges to person-place bonds. In an era of changing climate and environmental quandaries, place attachments are at risk. While nobody wants to see Waukesha residents displaced due water travails, nobody wants to see the Great Lakes–one of the world’s most valuable resources–positioned for lackadaisical exploitation. To what degree have conservation efforts or alternate projects been considered in Waukesha?
Despite the deserved reverence for this remarkable resource, and our obvious dependence on it, modern society has proven to be a poor caretaker of the Great Lakes in the recent past. Pollutants, toxins, eutrophication, sewage, wetland loss, invasive species, climate change, and over-extraction are all threatening the Great Lakes and the species who depend on them. Is it fathomable that a large-scale diversion project could be a future threat? Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next? Waukesha could be precedent setting for water woes and climate travails throughout the parched United States.
Boyce, C. (2016). Protecting the integrity of the Great Lakes: Past, present, and future. Natural Resources & Environment, 31.2, 36-39.
Canadian Geographic. (n.d.). The Great Lakes. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.canadiangeographic.com/atlas/themes.aspx?id=watersheds&sub=watersheds_flow_thegreatlakes&lang=En
Government of Canada. (2016). Great Lakes quickfacts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Environment and Climate Change Canada https://www.ec.gc.ca/grandslacs-greatlakes/default.asp?lang=En&n=B4E65F6F-1
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (n.d.). About our Great Lakes: Great Lakes basin facts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.glerl.noaa.gov//education/ourlakes/facts.html
O’Neill, S. J., and Graham, S. (2016). (En)visioning place-based adaptation to sea-level rise. Geo: Geography and Environment, e00028, doi: 10.1002/geo2.28.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2017). United States Drought Monitor. Retrieved February 26, 2017 from http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/RegionalDroughtMonitor.aspx?west