Who Gets to Drink From the Great Lakes?

Water has become the 21st-century equivalent of oil, and a plan to divert water from the Great Lakes to surrounding areas is raising questions about the possibility of future water grabs from far-flung water-sparse regions.

While plans to divert water from the Great Lakes basin date back to the early 1900s, modern-day attempts have become increasingly extravagant. In 1982, Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of using Great Lakes water to irrigate farmland on the Great Plains. (Not so feasible, said the Corps.) Fifteen years later, a businessman in Canada secured a permit from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment to transport 158 million gallons of water each year from Lake Superior to Asia in tanker ships. (He withdrew his proposal in 1998 under pressure from Canadian officials.) And in 2007, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, in his presidential bid, suggested piping Great Lakes water to the arid Southwest.

  • Drunk_by_Noon

    I always said that Canada could have a license to print money by just piping their runoff water to the American Southwest.
    Free money Canada!
    Let’s grow cotton in the dessert again!

    • “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988) by Robert Redford. Delightful movie filmed in NM, about a fight over water from an irrigation ditch. Wrote my first anthro paper on the subject “as if” it were a true story — they filmed in the small town in NM where a buddy of mine lives.

    • dance…dancetotheradio

      Complex issue.
      Water was completely on the table during the free trade negotiations.
      And if there is something that unites Canadians it is maintaining our water rights.
      We would not and did not relinquish them.
      Once we sell a drop we have to allow the sale of it all.
      It’s more important than oil.

      • Complex for sure — what happens if at some point we decide to stop selling water? If an agri industry in the US becomes dependent on it and the demand keeps growing, how can we justify “turning off the tap” if we are responsible for creating that dependency?

        Although we may not have a choice in the matter — at least half (if not most) of the Great Lakes is US territory.

        • dance…dancetotheradio

          I think the Great Lakes are different than the thousands of fresh water lakes and rivers in Western Canada that they originally eyed when the free trade agreement was being negotiated.
          The Great Lakes are a shared resource.
          If Canadian water had been included in the free trade agreement we couldn’t ever turn off the tap.
          Not without exposing ourselves to lawsuits.
          A common market is just that and you can’t invoke national interest rights once you have signed it.
          You’ve given up your sovereignty in the interest of trade.
          I didn’t mind that for oil.
          Not for water.

        • dance…dancetotheradio

          We don’t sell water to the States.

          • I meant hypothetically.
            Btw, seen any polar bears up there? Or is Churchill as far south as they get?

          • dance…dancetotheradio

            I’m still waiting for the decision.
            My future boss is on holidays and the guy I’d replace isn’t coming down until the summer.
            He went up there for three years.
            I call it paying your dues.
            If you had an opportunity to increase your salary by fifty percent and put that on the table for your family even if you had to leave them could you in good conscience refuse it?

          • Short answer, nope. But it would depend on the age of the kids.

          • dance…dancetotheradio

            Mine are in high school.
            We’ve already moved them to another city and back.
            I can’t do that to them again.
            This is my turn, alone.
            It is what Dads do.

          • dance…dancetotheradio

            And by the way, also, I’m going to lean on you when I go up there.

          • I’m leaving too (but hope to stay connected with BCF internet-wise). The thing is more psychological than anything — want to be in the right frame of mind.

            Although I should stick around and make more money first — let me know if they need a “jack of all trades” and I’ll come up there for the summer to make a few extra bucks.

          • dance…dancetotheradio

            I don’t know the lay of the land, yet.

          • Which brings us back to polar bears — I think they’re only a couple hundred kms. North of where you’ll be.

      • General P. Malaise

        it is not that if we sell a drop we have to sell all (we do sell some and we should be selling more). it is that we have some of the most corrupt politicians, greedy and envious people who claim to be civil servant running (ruining) everything they touch and they touch everything. f’n communists. and I do mean justine obama and that thing who claims to be premier in ontario and that thing that is its’ counterpart in alberta.

  • Minicapt

    The problem generally resolved to a duty given to Canadians to send our excess water to the beleaguered US SW for a token fee. Because the US would ‘have’ to finance the infrastructure, we (Canadians) should be generous (low fee or no fee) with our contribution to the problem’s solution. Given the current usages of the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers, I doubt there are suitable trained and knowledgable engineering personnel in the US to manage such a program.


  • Brett_McS

    I went to the beach at Presque Isle, Lake Erie, and it was really weird because there was no smell of salt in the air.

    • What about chemicals?

    • Lake Superior is like the ocean (minus the salt) because it’s so humongous. I think it even has tides. Far as smells on lake Erie — usually it’s rotting algae and dead fish.

      • Mike Williams

        Lake Erie is much cleaner now than when I remember it from the 60’s and 70’s — it was a warm lake to swim in but the rotting biomass smell was memorable. I understand that the increased inflow from Huron-Michigan has helped flush the lake.

        • Good news indeed — I remember the terrible smell when we had the camp out on the lake as a kid. Large lakefront property (later expropriated by the Ontario gov for the Nanticoke project).

        • Clausewitz

          The thing that cleaned up Lake Erie the most are the Zebra Mussels. They are filter feeders and have filtered most of the potassium runoff from shore based farm runoff over the years. This cut down on the algae blooms and by and large have helped to restore the fisheries on Lake Erie.

  • General P. Malaise

    the public seems not to know the history of the Great Lakes water treaties between Canada and the USA.
    Basically it is fully controlled. You might remember when the Mississippi river was too low to float barges, they southern states asked for water (the lakes can be fed into the Mississippi system today). They were denied as it requires both Canada and the USA to sign off and there was no interest as any diversion would reduce the water going over the falls or rather through the power turbines to produce electricity.

    For those who would like to know they actually pump water back up at Niagara (not to the river or lake but to reservoirs) at night (low demand) to be reused during high demand. Aside for a certain flow over the falls (for tourism) the water is all spoken for, if there was more water we would have more cheap power.

    I am all for diverting water where it makes sense and presently think there is a lot of fear mongering regarding water especially in Canada where there is lots of fresh water.

    • Mike Williams

      The pumped storage at Niagara Falls is a complete boondoggle (imho)…they have to pay for power for pumping to top up reservoirs that are being filled by >80% of the river flow (at least our 1/2 of it) at night.

      • General P. Malaise

        it is not hard to find the information. I will not even bother to give you any links because you just deny my claim without even proof, you are obviously lazier than I am.

        yes power is not free …BUT the turbines ARE turning during low demand anyway so yes they do have “free” power and they wisely use it to pump water up to the reservoirs at low demand periods.

        electricity production and transportation are a lot more complicated than most people are aware of. (it is one of the reasons solar and wind power are so hard and expensive to incorporate).

        you are missing the main point …ALL THE WATER IS SPOKEN FOR ..ALL OF IT. if they had more water we would have more electricity.

        • Mike Williams

          Its a simple “systems” problem…if you divert power from turning turbines you are not putting it on to the grid so you are losing revenues and to make it worse you lose energy due to the inefficiency of the pumping. You are better off just storing the river water input. Power generation at Niagara Falls is limited by the Niagara River flow and drop. They can only use so much of the water (because 1/2 belongs to the US and they need to let 80% or so of the water flow over the falls for 12-16 hours a day for tourism). They capture their allotment (the diverted flow) in the diversion canals and storage reservoir and these are never emptied so pumped storage is not needed. The “economics” of this only work because of the screwed up energy pricing in Ontario — it costs the rate payers more than it is worth.

    • Mike Williams

      The Great Lakes basin does not collect enough water (from rainfall, inflows, etc) to maintain its water levels (>80% of the water was deposited by the melting/retreating ice pack). The lakes are slowly getting drained and thanks to geostatic rebound in 4000 or so years they won’t be so great anymore. This situation is made worse thanks to canal that increased the flows into Erie/Ontario.

      • General P. Malaise

        you are not talking sense. today the lakes are only filled with rain/snow melt.

        if you want to talk about prehistoric times than your comment might have relevance. or that you know what will happen in 4000 years. maybe you should write science papers for the climate change hoaxers.

        the canal flow is not high nor loss due to evaporation or seeping into the ground.

        • Mike Williams

          You haven’t a clue about the formation of the Great Lakes and their future…do some research (hint: start with what is happening to Georgian Bay)

          • Clausewitz

            Mike, it’s you that are not taking into effect large potions of runoff into the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence lowlands is being captured for other uses, and has nothing to do with isostatic rebound. By and large rebounding from the ice age some 10,000 years ago exists primarily on the edges of the affected area’s. The main evidence are the existence of hanging beaches which are prevalent down east but almost non existent in the core of Canada. The watersheds where not dramatically affected by the Ice Age. What did affect the regional topology was the lobe of ice that formed the dam across the St Lawrence that backed up the waters creating amongst other formations the expanded Lake Ontario which formed Lake Iroquois. Evidence of this can be seen at the Milton gap along Hwy 401 just west of Mississauga.

            Expecting water levels to remain the same is about as silly as expecting climate to remain static. The planet evolves, it’s just your average individual doesn’t know how to look at the evidence around them.

          • Clausewitz

            BTW, my research is in the form of a Phd in structural geology from McMaster University.

  • Mike Williams

    They just need to wait a thousand or so years and thanks to geostatic rebound the western edge of the GL basin will start draining into the Mississippi basin…problem solved.

  • DD_Austin

    Why piss around

    Dam Hudson Bay, enough fresh water and hydro power for North America
    Dam the Florida straits and we can all drive electric cars

    Problem is small thinking, I blame the micro chip
    The slide rule boys didn’t have this problem, they thought big and when to the moon

  • andycanuck

    U.S. Great Lakes’ governors are often (always?) against such proposals as well.

  • DMB

    Once again Israel leads the world on water use and reclamation.