Climate Change and The Value of the Great Lakes

Even in the Fall, the sunset on Lake Michigan is breathtaking, as the sunlight dances over the dark waters, but all eyes are on the bride and groom. A lake-side beach wedding in September seems like an unusual choice, but Valerie Ann Strong “could not imagine a more perfect location.” She grew up in a lakeside town in Michigan and, much like many others in Michigan to her, “the Great Lakes are home.” “We are so lucky to live here and be able to experience everything the Great Lakes have to offer,” she enthusiastically shares. 

But beyond their strong cultural significance to those who live in the ‘Great Lakes State,’ the Lakes have a huge impact that reaches beyond Michigan or even the Midwest. According to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the Great Lakes hold about 90% of the United States’ total freshwater. This means that only one tenth of the freshwater in the US can be found outside of the Great Lakes. In fact, their impact doesn’t stop there. With 18% of the world’s freshwater supply, the Great Lakes are actually the largest freshwater supply on this planet. With that much freshwater, the preservation of the Great Lakes isn’t just important those who grew up calling them home.

As droughts and water shortages in the country increase in magnitude over the last few years, water is becoming an increasingly valuable resource. In fact, according to Sally Cole-Misch, of the International Joint Commission, the US is moving towards “what we’re calling a blue economy.” Water is becoming a central political issue and becoming more valuable. Faced with the limitations of what was once considered an endless supply, the U.S. is reevaluating its relationship with this vital natural resource. 

In the Southwest, a drought has been tearing through the water supply, escalating to record-breaking severity this summer. The coverage and sense of emergency surrounding this drought and other water shortages across the country has emphasized the contrast between the regions with a water crisis and Michigan. Michigan isn’t a state that has ever had to consider water insecurity. This is changing how people view the Lakes. Cole-Misch says : “You see the difference in a drought community versus ours, the advantages we have. The more that people begin to appreciate the precious resource that we have.” This growing appreciation has resulted in a very protective attitude arising around the Great Lakes, especially in Michigan.

In fact, looking as far west as California for an example of a water crisis that is affecting the tone and attitude towards the Lakes is unnecessary. Just outside Lake Michigan’s natural basin, the city of Waukesha, Wisonsin, faces an impending water crisis. As explained by Jennifer Sereno, from Wisonsin’s Department of Natural Resources, the city has “municipal needs that current water source.” That source is a sandstone aquifer that is not fit for use because of naturally occurring toxic levels of radium. As a solution, the city turned to the large body of water under 20 miles away – Lake Michigan. However, diverting water from the Lakes has turned out to be not only a controversial issue, but a politically and legally gridlocked one.

In 2008, in an effort to protect the Great Lakes and their natural resources, the Great Lakes Compact was passed as a legally binding compact between Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, according to the GLC’s own website. As Noah Hall, a professor of environmental and water law at both Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, explained, the Great Lakes Compact “is both law and governing body” in issues surrounding Great Lakes water diversion. The legal implications of this compact are that it all but bans water diversion from the Lakes. 

According to Hall, “there are some limited circumstances” in which water diversion could be approved. But these cases that are reserved only for straddling communities facing a water crisis. Waukesha has been gathering data and research in hopes of appealing to the Great Lakes Compact for water diversion under this exception. “The criteria for diversion are very strict” explains Sereno. Even such, Sereno says that a recent proposal submitted by Waukesha to the State’s Department of Natural Resources “meets the standards outlined in the compact.”

However, even once Waukesha’s proposal is done being reviewed by their own state, it must be forwarded to the Compact. Once there, Peter Johnson, Deputy Director of the Compact’s Water Resources Council, explains that the process is estimated to “take about six months.” “All the information in the proposal will be made public and there will be opportunity for public comments. Although the determination will be based upon criteria defined within the compact and whether they are reflected in the proposal, Johnson explains that the Council will want to “hear from the public whether or not those criteria are met in the proposal.”

As far as the public here in Michigan, the idea of diverting water from the Lakes is met with extreme controversy. Valerie Strong’s opinion seems to echo that of the general public in the state that is both culturally and geographically at the center of the Great Lakes. “I do not think that diverting water from the Great Lakes is a good idea. We need to work on finding different alternatives for areas in need”

Waukesha’s struggle is emblematic of the change in the way states are valuing this resource. In fact, as Hall has explained, there is a mounting “big political and maybe legal fight” over the proposal to divert water out of Lake Michigan. It’s a debate that is based in the value of freshwater and is reflective of the shift in political attitude towards the Lakes here in Michigan. The Great Lakes Compact makes it difficult for straddling communities to appeal for water diversion, “requires agreement, about any diversion,” as Cole-Misch stated. But it’s not just the way the laws are written, she went on further to explain that the “states have not seemed interested in moving towards any kind of approval.”

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A photo of Lake Michigan taken on a beach in Ludington, MI

 

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