Some Promote Sharing Water
From the Great Lakes
5/7/99
reprinted with the permission of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Imagine the Great Lakes as great field of water.  Each winter, experts would measure snowfall to determine how much of the farm could be "harvested" and sold.

This is the vision of Tom Bell, who would like to see the United States and Canada share farming responsibilities and revenue from the Great Lakes.

"It would be like a farmer getting grain out of the fields," said Tom Bell, president and publisher of U.S. Water News, a Kansas-based trade publication.  "If he has a good harvest, he sells it. If there is a small harvest, he doesn't sell as much.

"There is so much water that goes out to sea that's unused, why not sell it?"

With below-average water levels, the Great Lakes wouldn't yield much of a harvest this year.  And no one is certain if the region's water wealth is ever "unused" inside or even outside the system. Scientists who can track Great Lakes water for 10 months after it mixes with the ocean aren't even sure what role it plays there.

"The ecosystem's complexity eludes us," David Dempsey, program director for the Michigan Environmental Council, told Booth Newspapers.  "I'm saying no diversions until we can fully understand the impacts and become better stewards ourselves."

But for the first time in decades, there may be a softening in the region's reluctance to let others share in the 4.5 billion gallons of Great Lakes water that daily flow to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River.

A plan last year by a Canadian company to ship Lake Superior water to Asia prompted the U.S. and Canada to ask the International Joint Commission to look at Great Lakes water policy. The group, which oversees the countries' shared water resources, will recommend policies on Great Lakes water use in August.

A recently published survey of Michigan lawmakers found that more than half could conceive of when it would be OK to send Great Lakes water elsewhere.  The scenarios include emergency help for communities with contaminated water, diversions that don't affect water levels and uses where the same amount of water is returned to the Great Lakes.

A 1986 federal law gives Michigan the upper hand in approving diversions.  Any of the Great Lakes governors can veto a request to move water outside of the basin where water drains to the lakes. Michigan, almost wholly within the basin, can easily turn down other states'proposals.

That's why the attitudes of the Michigan lawmakers are significant, said Jim Hill, the Central Michigan University professor who did the survey.

"There is even ground in our state where we could begin to develop a platform for a policy for evaluating diversion prospects," said Hill, a former member of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission.

By 2025, more than 3 billion people in 52 countries will suffer from chronic water shortages, according to reports on World Bank predictions. Global thirst doubles every 21 years.

During the IJC hearings, researchers reported on the use of giant, flexible bladders that can be filled with water and pulled by tugboats.

"The advantage to it is that you don't need a big port or a big ship," said Thomas Baldini, who chairs the U.S. section of the IJC.

Global Water Corp., a British Columbia-based company, already has a permit to ship water overseas from Sitka, Alaska.  The group hopes to ship 5 billion gallons of water a year, treat and bottle it in parched countries and sell it as Alaska Glacier Ice Water.

Some worry about the environmental impact of imported water on arid communities.

"You get these people talking about water-rich and water-poor countries and that is incredible nonsense from an ecosystem view," said Mary Durfee, who chairs a binational advisory group on Lake Superior.

"Places have the water they need for the ecosystems that exist there," said Durfee, a social science professor at Michigan Technological University.  "You can put massive quantities of water in the desert and ruin ecosystems."

The pressure is on now to create a policy that isn't based simply on the whims of Great Lakes governors, Hill said.

Congress, which granted governors veto authority, can easily take it away, he said.  And migrating populations mean that congressional power is moving South, where water is scarce.

"We have a lot of good reason to do this now, while we control the process, rather than wait for the process to be taken away," Hill said.


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