Great Lakes Water ‘Wars’: A History of Conflict and Cooperation

The Great Lakes Water Wars
By Peter Annin
Island Press, 2009, 320 pages
Reviewed by David M. Freedman

¶ The five Great Lakes of North America hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. More than 40 million Americans and Canadians live in the Great Lakes Basin (GLB). There is intense economic pressure on the bordering states and provinces to share this resource with other regions, and pressure grows as fresh water becomes scarcer and dirtier.

In Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin (associate director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources and a former Newsweek reporter) describes several grandiose schemes to divert Great Lakes water for profit, including:

  • The proposed Ogallala diversion which would have required that water move uphill from Lake Superior to Yankton, South Dakota.
  • An attempt by a Canadian entrepreneur to ship freighters full of Lake Superior water to Asia.

Not good ideas. Water usage in the Great Lakes Basin is already “nearing the sustainable yield,” according to a 2007 review of Annin’s book in the Natural Resources Journal of the University of New Mexico School of Law.

We don’t want the GLB to end up like Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has lost 90 percent of its surface area and 75 percent of its volume since 1960, due to diversion and climate change. How can we prevent that kind of scenario? How long can the Great Lakes Commission uphold the non-diversion pact under intense pressure to divert?

Annin tries to answer these questions, providing first a valuable historical background, second a balanced look at conflicts and potential conflicts that afflict the GLB’s resources, and third a deep look at how diplomacy and compromise yield effective policy. [Click on the book image for details on Amazon.]

Not Really about ‘Wars’
The title is misleading because it is not about military wars, but the legal and political struggles around protecting the Great Lakes water resources by limiting in-basin use and out-of-basin diversion. Whereas Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (by Marc Reisner, Penguin) might be a cautionary tale of wanton exploitation, The Great Lakes Water Wars is a lesson in far-sighted diplomacy. I’m aware that in another century—or a few decades—history might prove me wrong.

Annin told me he plans to update the book, because it was published two years before the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was ratified by the eight Great Lakes states and approved by Congress.

I wonder if the Compact will survive when drought- and salinity-stricken areas of the country start demanding access to “our” water resources. Will the federal government dictate a more equitable water distribution scheme? Or will the GLB states gain enough power, partly as a result of migration away from the stricken areas into the fertile GLB over the next few decades, to resist central authority over the resources?

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