Beyond the basin: Great Lakes water diversion in a changing world

“One small city’s request for water does not seem significant—but is it?”

To the Expositor:

The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin is thirsty for Great Lakes water. The city’s 70,000 residents can no longer drink from their depleted aquifer. What little water remains is contaminated with naturally occurring cancer-causing radium. Though Waukesha is on the Mississippi side of the sub-continental divide, it is mere kilometres from the Great Lakes watershed. Waukesha 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? What does this mean for Canada? And perhaps more poignantly, what does this potential test case mean for other thirsty cities in the context of a changing climate?

More than 35 million people, including nine million Canadians, rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 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 recently experienced “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions (United States Department of Agriculture, 2015). It seems Waukesha is poised to become a precedent-setting test case for moving water beyond a basin.

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Canadians are generally opposed to watershed vaulting. Great Lakes diversions are not, after all, new notions. The Chicago diversion is a century-old proverbial thorn in Canada’s side.  Chicago draws nearly two billion gallons of water each day from the Great Lakes, an amount that could increase in coming years. As such, apprehension is not unsubstantiated.  Even Canada’s ambassador to the United States predicts water supply will become a major issue between the two countries within the next five to 10 years. Canada must prepare for water diplomacy as the US continues to run dry.

While our southern neighbours struggle to adapt to changing water patterns, it is tempting to exult in our geographical lottery. Canada is, after all, a nation rich in freshwater supply. The Great Lakes alone constitute over 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. This oft-repeated axiom, however, is somewhat misleading. This supply cannot be utilized without completely destroying the stock. A mere one percent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year in rain and snow-melt (Environment Canada, 2013). Our water system is not sustainable. Our water abundance is a myth.

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 (for example, the California drought) is attributable to climate change, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm and society will be forced to adapt to these altered patterns.

The Waukesha situation is already challenging The Great Lakes Compact–a legally binding agreement signed into law by President Bush. The agreement is an act of Congress ensuring that all the eight states touching the Great Lakes shoreline can veto water requests. Because states and provinces cannot sign international agreements, Ontario and Quebec are opinionated onlookers in these state discussions.  If, however, Ontario and Quebec object to the Waukesha application, they have authority to fall back upon the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 (along with the bi-national International Joint Commission stemming from it).

While the Great Lakes are certainly depended upon as a water supply, they are also fundamentally important to Canada-US trade, agriculture, industry, power generation and recreation. Their vitality and abundance contributes hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy each year (Environment Canada, 2013). The stakes for water quality and supply are high. Assuming approval, Waukesha will draw 10.1 million gallons of lake water each day by mid-century (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2015). Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next in this era of changing climate patterns?

Please consider taking the time to voice your opinion on this matter by commenting at before March 14, 2016.

Jillian Bond-Smith, Haweater

Teaching Fellow in Ecology, Harvard University

Doctoral Researcher in Environmental Studies, University of Birmingham