Is Time Running Out On The Great Lakes Basin Compact?

There is a lot of justifiable concern that environmental stress and large-scale diversions to more arid regions of the country could threaten the health of the Great Lakes and surrounding communities. That is in a nut-shell the reason for being of The Great Lakes Basin Compact - to ban diversions outside the Great Lake Basin (except for very limited exceptions) and there is a growing optimism that the Compact will become the law of the land; 5 of the 8 Great Lake states have joined the compact. New York signed on earlier this year and Wisconsin most recently approved the compact and legislation is pending in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Recently Talk of the Nation Science Friday held a discussion of The Great Lakes Basin Compact from Wisconsin after that state’s legislature ratified the compact; you can read the summary and listen to the segment here. An important point that was made early on is that despite the progress being made at the state level, the compact will still require Federal approval and the demographic reality by way of the US Census is that the Great Lakes States are losing representation and will likely lose additional House seats in the next census. Thus 2010 has become something of a deadline for getting this legislation before US Congress.

But looking beyond the compact, today’s Buffalo News has a special report on the State of the Great Lakes:

“There is a long-term threat to the Great Lakes with respect to large-scale diversion,” said Kevin Martin, assistant deputy minister for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. We are fearful that at some point in the future, someone is going to look at the lakes and think that they are an opportunity to foster irrigation projects . . . or urban growth in the Southwestern U. S.,” he said.That fear is echoed on this side of the border by observers such as Noah Hall, a law professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University who has monitored the progress of the Great Lakes Compact, an international agreement to manage the estimated 6 quadrillion gallons of lake water. The compact bans new water diversions from in and around the lakes’ basin, except for limited exceptions, which must meet stringent criteria.

“I look at both the science and the politics,” Hall said. “Both point us in a direction that makes the prospect of some of the drier parts of the states seeking Great Lakes water inevitable.”

The science Hall refers to revolves around global warming — which experts believe will exacerbate existing shortages — and engineering, which has already created elaborate water movement systems to make the desert bloom and bring water to millions of people.

The water supplies in many parts of the West are fed through the melting and runoff of mountain snow into the Colorado River basin in the spring. Climate models indicate global warming will bring less snow and more rain.

Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars is quoted in the Buffalo News report and participated in the Science Friday discussion; unfortunately his book is not available through the Onondaga County Library. But you can read excerpts from google books here if you want a preview. One fact in the preview that caught my eye was that Americans have among the highest per capita water usage in the world and of all places, Las Vegas “residents use more than twice as much as the average American”. The idea of “water wars” whether military or political may seem a bit over-the-top, but it reminded me of a Ken Burns interview (link?) where he stated his belief that historians in the future would view the Gulf War and the Invasion of Iraq as early skirmishes in the “oil wars”. With the uncertainty of global warming and gas prices at $4 and counting, I’m not sure if the idea of “water wars” and “oil wars” are actually two different things.

See this Newsweek article for more on Wars for Water.

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