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Water, Water, Everywhere?

Having lived most of my life in Michigan and Illinois, Lake Michigan has practically been in my back yard my whole life. The Great Lakes have always been an important source of water for people living in the regions surrounding the lakes and for centuries the lakes have provided a means of transportation that has helped drive the regional economies. In the past, I haven't given too much thought to the futures of the lakes because, well, they just seem so permanent. However, the Great Lakes might be in for tough times as a combination of global warming and irresponsible water management conspire to threaten their futures.

Water levels on the lakes are down. According to a December 2007 article in the Muskegon (Michigan) Chronicle, the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron are near record lows and, briefly, fell below the record lows in November of 2007. Per the article, "'There was more water evaporating from the two lakes in November than there was precipitation going into the lakes. In effect, we took water out of the lakes,' said Carl Woodruff, a hydraulic engineer at the Corps' Detroit office." Lake Superior is also flirting with record low water levels not seen in over 80 years. These low levels have forced cargo ships to sail with lighter-than-capacity loads and power plants that rely on the lake's water have had to reduce output.

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Warmer winters have led to reduced winter ice on the lakes' surfaces, thus allowing for more evaporation. But climatic changes are not the only things demanding water from the Great Lakes. Back in 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that in the late 1990's the Canadian province of Ontario "...issued a permit to a private company to collect Great Lakes water and ship it in bulk to Asia. The permit was issued to Nova Group, a company in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, allowing it to ship up to 600 million litres of Lake Superior water to Asia by 2002. There was such a public outcry – on both sides of the border – that the permit was withdrawn." As the populations in the western states continue to grow and cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix continue to experience population booms, demands on limited water supplies in the west are reaching the breaking point. One-time presidential hopeful Bill Richardson raised a stir when he suggested that America needed a national water policy, in part to quench thirsts for water in the southwestern states. He hinted that the Great Lakes (or at least Wisconsin) might be tapped for water.

With so many forces acting on the Great Lakes, what can we do to avoid the lakes following in the footsteps of the Aral Sea?

U.S. Congressman Mark Kirk (Republican – Illinois) has an idea : He thinks that an intergovernmental compact is needed to protect America's largest source of fresh water. "To protect the Great Lakes, we need to ratify the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact," Congressman Kirk said. "The Compact implements a host of water conservation and transparency measures that will limit water diversions and encourage responsible, sustainable water use. Only two states have ratified the measure so far – Illinois and Minnesota. Before it becomes law, all Great Lakes states must ratify the Compact. A state-by-state approach will not solve our problem. We need a comprehensive, regional solution to prevent the selling off of our most important natural resource."

Provisions of the compact would include:
• Requirements that any entity withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to register with the state
and annually report on withdrawal, diversion or consumptive use volumes;
• The development of water conservation and efficiency programs within two years;
• A prohibition on all new or increased diversions except:
If the water withdrawn is solely for public water supply purposes, and
If the water is completely returned to the watershed
• A review process for extremely large diversions or withdrawals;
• State regulations to ensure net impact does not adversely affect the ecosystem;
• Withdrawals of water (with a federal minimum of 100,000 gallons per day) must be returned, or treated then
returned, to the lakes.

So, if you live in the Great Lakes region, you might want to consider contacting your elected officials and ask them to support the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

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