The future of the Great Lakes: Who will control the water?
First of four parts.
The enormity of the Great Lakes is hard to comprehend.
The five lakes contain 20 percent of all the fresh surface water on Earth, and together with the St. Lawrence River form a navigational system that is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of people depend upon the lakes for drinking water, manufacturing, shipping, recreation, fishing, tourism, and irrigation.
But what’s harder for most people to comprehend - especially those who look out on the lakes while standing along the shore or sitting in a pleasure boat - is that the endless horizon does not mean that the Great Lakes are an endless resource.
Concern is rising over diverting lake water to benefit commercial interests and to help water-needy states with more congressional clout - like Florida, Texas, and California. There are also mounting fears about increased demands to allow oil and natural gas drilling under the lakes.
With the lakes currently at some of their lowest levels in a half-century, and the threat of global warming looming, some scientists, government officials, and water experts believe that there isn’t water to spare.
Who controls the water is expected to become a major issue in the coming years. That’s why on June 18, governors from the eight Great Lakes states are to meet in Niagara Falls, N.Y., with the premiers of the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec to consider a proposed strategy for making sure that water stays in this region.
The seriousness of the issue was recently expressed by Michigan Governor Engler in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge:
The council plans to address the issue with a proposal called Annex 2001. It would essentially limit diversions to a maximum of one million gallons a day or less. That would be enough to satisfy the drinking water needs of some growing communities that exist within a few miles of the Great Lakes’ shores.
If approved by the governors and premiers, Congress and the Canadian Parliament will have three years to ratify Annex 2001. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) plans to introduce legislation Wednesday calling for a moratorium on Great Lakes water diversions and bulk exports until both nations finish reviewing the proposed agreement at the federal level.
While there are currently no serious plans on the table to lay Alaska Pipeline-like waterlines across the continent to allow dry states such as California, Florida, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona to tap into the Great Lakes, there is a growing consensus that the idea is not so far-fetched.
Nor is the concept of filling ocean-bound tankers with Great Lakes water and shipping it to other parts of the world, something which almost happened in 1998.
The Nova Group of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was forced to give up a permit it had secured to bottle up to 156 million gallons of Lake Superior water a year for sale to Asian markets.
Water is so coveted in Asia and other parts of the world that White House officials during the latter part of the Clinton-Gore administration began looking at the issue from a national security standpoint. Members of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, and the State Department were involved.
Consider these recent developments:
A company called Global Water Corp. has announced plans to ship up to 5 billion gallons a year of glacier water by tanker from Alaska, near the port city of Sitka, to the Middle East. The company said on its Internet web site that it has reached agreements with buyers in China, and that it plans to negotiate with interested parties in the southwest U.S.
Another company, Sun Belt Water, Inc., of Santa Barbara, Calif., is using a provision under the North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as the basis for a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit it has filed against British Columbia over water that the company had tried to ship to southern California in super tankers capable of holding up to 75 million gallons each.
"The pressure will be immense to use the Great Lakes, to pipe water from there," said one-time presidential candidate Paul Simon, a former U.S. senator from Illinois who has devoted much of his career to studying global water shortages.
"Right now, [transporting water by pipe] looks too expensive. But the cost factor will diminish as time goes by, said Mr. Simon, who is the author of a 1998 book called Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It.
"I think it’s not only conceivable," he told The Blade, "I think it’s inevitable. ... If we don’t find answers, it is almost inevitable we will be tapping into the Great Lakes."
The proposed Annex 2001 document, which would amend a 1985 charter the governors signed to protect the lakes, was primarily inspired by two things: the Nova Group’s attempt, and a subsequent report to governors in 1999 by a team of legal experts. That report cited several loopholes that exist under international trade laws that might make it possible for someone to seek to transport Great Lakes water outside the region.
The Sun Belt case has sent shock waves throughout Canada, where public officials have long held skeptical views of the U.S. commitment to hold the line on water diversions and bulk exports.
Sun Belt signed an agreement on March 14, 1991, with a company that would have exported some of the Canadian province’s so-called "surplus" water, only to have the agreement nullified by the province four days later. The agreement was between Sun Belt and Snowcap Waters Ltd., a company in Fanny Bay, B.C., that had obtained rights to export water.
Sun Belt claims as much as $10.5 billion is at stake and is trying to have this case be the first of its kind to be heard by a NAFTA tribunal - a panel consisting of one judge from the United States, one from Canada, and a third chosen by the two judges.
"We would have been the Microsoft [of water exports] - we would have been the leader," Jack Lindsay, Sun Belt chief executive officer, said.
The NAFTA challenge drew the attention of Lloyd Axworthy when he was Canada’s foreign affairs minister, prompting him in 1999 to obtain support from the Canadian Parliament for a temporary moratorium on bulk water exports. Mr. Axworthy, in a recent speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, warned that the United States could be as eager to get Canada’s water as its lumber and energy.
John Manley, Mr. Axworthy’s successor as foreign affairs minister, reintroduced legislation at the federal level earlier this year to prohibit bulk removal of water from Canadian boundary waters, including the Great Lakes.
The possibility of letting others tap into the Great Lakes has been talked about for decades. Each time it has been met by huge opposition from within the region and dismissed as too costly.
In 1959, Thomas Kierans, an engineer from Newfoundland, proposed the Great Recycling and Northern Development project, known as GRAND. The $79 billion plan called for a 100-mile dike to separate James Bay from the salty Hudson Bay so that fresh water from Canadian rivers could be trapped. A fifth of that water was to flow south into Lake Huron through a system of canals and river reversals, so that Lake Huron water could be diverted.
The proposal initially drew some interest from the business community, but ultimately died because of lack of funding.
During Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, Congress passed a bill that would have tripled the amount of water drawn from Lake Michigan for Illinois. Mr. Eisenhower vetoed the legislation.
In 1963, a group of engineers called the North American Water and Power Alliance developed a plan to move water from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to the southwest. Under that plan, a massive lake - 500 miles long and 10 miles wide - would have been created in British Columbia and filled by diverting water from nearby rivers, as well as from a canal that would have started in Lake Michigan and crossed the Continental Divide.
Concerns rose again shortly after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980, as officials from this region saw the amount of federal dollars going to projects out West. Only three years earlier, in the summer of 1977, the $8 billion Trans Alaska Pipeline System - the Alaska Pipeline, as many people call it - was completed. It showed the extent to which the government was willing to support the movement of natural resources to accommodate other areas.
Great Lakes governors eventually held a summit about the issue on Mackinaw Island, Mich., which led to their 1985 charter.
A report issued the following year by the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission said there was once "considerable concern" about using the Great Lakes to replenish the massive Ogallala Aquifer that extends through parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.
The IJC report also cited studies done by a University of Michigan researcher years ago that included scenarios for moving water from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and from Lake Superior to the Missouri River basin. The report cited discussions in the early 1980s about using the lakes to support a coal slurry pipeline project in Montana and Wyoming that would have served Midwest industry. None of those projects went anywhere, the IJC said.
Many people who have studied the diversion issue stick to the idea that the sheer cost of moving water long distances makes bulk water transfers impractical. Yet they agree that, when push comes to shove, politics have a way of overpowering practicality.
"I’m not going to suggest nobody is going to do it, as crazy and uneconomical it is. The landscape is littered with projects that don’t make economic sense," said Dr. Peter Gleick, one of the nation’s leading water experts and author of "The World’s Water 2000-2001: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources." He is founder-president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a think tank based in Oakland, Calif., that examines global water shortages.
Bruce Manny, a longtime fishery biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes center in Ann Arbor, Mich., called the diversion issue "a sleeping giant."
"The only question is whether there is the money and the political will," Mr. Manny said.
George Kuper, a free trade proponent and president of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, agreed.
"As the pressures build, the economics will change," Mr. Kuper predicted. The council represents some of the region’s biggest employers: Dana Corp., BP Amoco Corp., Dow Chemical Co., 3M, Detroit Edison Co., Eastman Kodak Co., Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Corp.
People in the Great Lakes region could be hit hard financially if massive diversions or exports occur. For example, commercial and recreational fishing for the Great Lakes is valued at a whopping $4.5 billion annually.
Receding shorelines imperil the best spawning habitat for fish. Ultimately, people suffer as well: the price of shipping goods such as iron ore, coal, cement, stone, and steel invariably drives up the costs of consumer goods.
Global water shortages have put the Great Lakes at a crossroads, prompting the 92-year-old U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission to issue a report claiming that large-scale withdrawals could hurt the region’s economy and ecology.
Broken down into a daily average, the Nova Group would not have been removing more than the amount that evaporates from the lakes every 24 hours, according to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor.
But many people expressed fears about the type of precedent the Nova project would have established.
John Febrarro, Nova Group president, told The Blade he considers Great Lakes water, as well as fresh water on Canada’s other coastlines, to be a "lucrative commodity."
"Whether next year, five years from now, or 10 years from now, we’ll be shipping water abroad," Mr. Febrarro said. He believes Canada’s economy will someday include water exports.
"It’s black and white. I can’t see it any other way," he said. "At some point, it’s going to be a tradable commodity."
Mr. Febrarro said the Nova Group - a consulting firm that had brought together investors for the 1998 proposal - is playing a "waiting game" with U.S. and Canadian officials.
Nova hasn’t given up on the idea of exporting Lake Superior water. In exchange for giving up his firm’s permit, Mr. Febrarro has a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian government giving Nova Group first crack at exporting water if the government allows such activity in the future.
"What the governors have done has not dissuaded me one bit," Mr. Febrarro said, referring to Annex 2001.
The proposal was inspired by a report issued to the governors’ council in May, 1999, when a team of legal experts concluded that the veto power Congress granted to the governors over diversions probably would not hold up in court. In 1986, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act, which forbids diversions without consent from all Great Lakes governors.
The fear is that international trade laws under NAFTA and GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, have opened the door to diversions and exports.
The legal opinion was commissioned by governors in response to the Nova Group’s attempt to export Great Lakes water, prompting them to examine weaknesses in their 1985 charter.
The effort to head off diversions on the federal level has been led by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula whose congressional district encompasses more Great Lakes shoreline than any other.
He has reintroduced legislation for a ban on Great Lakes water exports from the American side, citing Global Water and Sun Belt cases as ones that could set precedents.
"I am very concerned that improper policies could allow for large-scale diversions of Great Lakes water, threatening the environment, economy, and welfare of the Great Lakes region," Mr. Stupak said while testifying before the IJC in 1999.
"Now is the time, therefore, to begin to formulate at the federal level an ironclad agreement between the United States and Canada to protect this essential resource," he said.
Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen.
Mr. Stupak’s previous bills to ban exports have not emerged out of committee, even with an endorsement from then-Vice President Gore.
Adding to the uncertainty are the results of the latest census, which show how America’s population has shifted to water-thirsty states. Arizona, Florida, and Texas each are expected to gain two seats in Congress, with California and Nevada each gaining one.
At the same time, the Great Lakes region will likely lose nine seats. Pennsylvania and New York are each expected to lose two seats, with Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana each losing one.
"We have never been real good at harvesting our share of the federal pie. This means it’s just going to get worse," Mr. Kuper said.
George Ryan, vice president of the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Carriers Association, said his group is "very concerned about the loss of seats." The 121-year-old association represents U.S.-flagged vessels operating on the Great Lakes.
"It’s all a matter of numbers and influence. In Washington, those with the greatest political influence win the day," Mr. Ryan said.
Every inch in lost depth costs millions of dollars in revenue
"If our gateway to the world is constrained by water levels, as it is now, it
affects us all," said Wayne Smith, vice president and general manager of Seaway
Marine Transport, the largest operating fleet on the lakes.
Every inch of lost water translates to millions of dollars in lost revenue for the region.
Lower water levels mean additional trips to ship cargo, said George Ryan, president of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association. The cost to do that will not be absorbed by companies, not when the price for steel - one of the major products being shipped - has dropped as a result of cheaper foreign steel flooding the market.
The carriers’ association has estimated that 270 tons need to be removed from a 1,000-foot vessel for every inch of water that the lakes recede. To understand how much those ships hold, consider this: It takes six freight trains, each with 100 cars, to haul the same amount of cargo.
Biologist Bruce Manny of the U.S. Geological Survey in Ann Arbor, Mich., said it wouldn’t take much to imperil the fishing industry on the lakes because the best spawning habitat is soft sediment near the current shorelines.
In other words, fish would start disappearing long before the lakes looked like they were drying up. A few feet of shoreline in some areas can mean the difference between suitable and unsuitable spawning habitat for fish, he said.
Fishing is the backbone of the boating industry. After 30 years of high water, lake levels plunged in the late 1990s. Many of today’s marinas were built when water levels were high, costing the region millions of dollars in additional dredging the past few years.
Dredging costs are likely to keep going up, due to a limited number of sites licensed to accept the often-polluted sediment, said Jeff Henderson, president of Harrison Marine, Inc., of Mount Clemens, Mich.
Frank Quinn, retired senior hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Ann Arbor, said the brief era of low water in the mid 1960s is "something that most of us can’t remember."
"We’ve lived with 30 years of high lake levels," Dr. Quinn, who studied Great Lakes water levels for 39 years, said.
Scientists aren’t sure what to make of the sudden drop in water levels, one of the most dramatic since authorities began keeping Great Lakes records in the mid 1800s.
They said they know there are natural fluctuations - trends that can last only a year or two, or be sustained for as long as three decades.
Yet they continue to arm themselves with evidence that global warming is real, and feel caught in the middle trying to figure out how much of the current problem should be attributed to it.
"The wait-and-see attitude isn’t a prudent one. We’re reasonably confident the lake levels are going to [continue to] drop," said Dr. Peter Sousounis, a University of Michigan researcher who directed the global warming assessment team.
The team included 35 scientists from Midwest institutions and government agencies.
In October, the team issued one of the most comprehensive forecasts about global warming to the White House, focusing on the Great Lakes. The report predicted as much as a 2-foot to 5-foot drop in water levels by the end of the century.
The first assessment of its kind commissioned by the White House, the report is a hybrid between earlier British and Canadian computer models. One suggested little or no change; the other predicted drops in lake levels as deep as eight feet.
No matter what people believe about the global warming issue, one sign that does not bode well is the lack of snowfall on the Canadian side of Lake Superior in recent years.
The lakes are so enormous that only 1 percent of the water lost to evaporation, consumption and diversion is replenished each year by snow and rain. Much of that replenishment comes from snow on the Canadian side of Lake Superior.
Since Lake Superior is by far the deepest lake and flows south into the others, losses on this lake impact all the others. Earlier this year, Lake Superior was the lowest it had been since 1926.
Dr. Quinn traced the trend to the start of the El Nino weather pattern in the fall of 1997, which resulted in unusually dry and mild conditions during the winter of 1997-98. Water levels have not been the same since then, he said.
Yet, he said, global warming "is not as far-off of an issue as a lot of people think and a lot of industry groups would like to make you think."
Rising global temperatures can only increase pressure to divert or export Great Lakes water in bulk, Dr. Quinn said.
The rapid change in lake levels took almost everyone by surprise, even one of Ohio’s top geologists.
Dr. Scudder Mackey, former supervisor of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Lake Erie Geology Group in Sandusky, has joked about how he was among hundreds of people who nearly got their boats stuck in water-stressed marinas.
Until recently, Dr. Mackey had spent years studying Lake Erie.
"Nobody saw it coming," he said.
But while many experts seem baffled by the sudden drop, a grassroots organization of Great Lakes property owners believes things never had to be that way.
The International Great Lakes Coalition for Shoreline Preservation, a group that represents 4,000 shoreline-property owners, says much of the anxiety about water quantity could have been resolved by establishing stronger government regulations at control points. These include the St. Mary’s River near Lake Superior, the Niagara River near Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River, the major artery between Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean.
One of its board members, Mary Ann Thurber, 70, has spent much of her life observing Lake Erie’s highs and lows from a family house in Monroe County’s LaSalle Township. The house was owned by Mrs. Thurber’s parents and was passed along to Mrs. Thurber and her husband, Don, following their marriage in 1953.
Mrs. Thurber said officials would have an easier time determining if there’s enough water to spare for diversions or bulk exports if they would use locks more effectively in controlling depths throughout the lake system. Instead, she claimed, they focus just on the needs for shipping and hydroelectric power plants in those immediate areas.
"The only way to protect [the Great Lakes] is by setting firm lake levels," she said.
High-ranking government officials, including Dr. Gerald E. Galloway, Jr., secretary of the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, have said lake levels cannot be manipulated so easily by man-made devices.
"Human controls over lake levels are relatively minor in comparison to nature’s ability to replenish the lakes," he said.
The IJC, a government agency established by the U.S. and Canada in 1909 to study boundary water issues, has taken the position that there "is never a surplus" of Great Lakes water, he said.
"Right now, we’re tapping the water as much as it can be tapped. Every drop makes a difference," Dr. Galloway said.