Great Lakes: A More Secure Water Source

6 MINS READDec 1, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
Great Lakes: A More Secure Water Source
Editor's Note:

This is the 17th installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world.

It is hard to imagine that the area surrounding North America's five Great Lakes, which contain roughly one-fifth of the world's fresh water, could ever succumb to water stress or scarcity. The lakes' abundance, however, is no guarantee that water supply issues will never arise. Moreover, pollution from industrial and agricultural activities that have disrupted supplies locally could continue. But despite potential quality issues, the ready availability of water is one of the region's greatest long-term advantages. Reliable sources of water can provide this area with an economic edge, making it a more attractive location for future industrial growth. Basinwide management agreements enacted in 2008 are an example of the region's extreme protectiveness over the water. Similar policies will pop up elsewhere in North America and around the globe as water stress and scarcity increase.

Connected by several rivers and minor lakes, the five Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — represent the largest catchment of fresh water on the planet, covering an area of nearly 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles) and containing roughly 23 trillion cubic meters (about 6.1 quadrillion gallons) of water. The lakes, which straddle the U.S.-Canada border, provide drinking water for millions of people and support a robust regional fishing industry. Beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries, the lakes have supported electricity production, tourism and industrial activity.


By the mid-19th century, canals supplemented transportation along the lakes, enabling goods traversing them to reach the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Waves of immigration in the same period helped establish numerous cities along their shores: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Toronto, to name a few. The U.S. metropolitan areas, once industrialized, became one of the most productive, thriving sections of the country for the better part of 20th century. Toronto, which blossomed into Canada's most populous metropolitan area, anchors a densely populated and heavily industrialized region hugging the western tip of Lake Ontario.

Ships carrying the industrial bulk cargos of the Great Lakes, much of it iron, coal and limestone, supported the area's robust steel industry. Grain shipments likewise flowed from the fertile regions surrounding the lakes. But just as the so-called Steel Belt transformed into the Rust Belt as traditional manufacturing declined, shipping activity along the Great Lakes has steadily fallen over the past several decades. Other regional industrial activity has dropped off as well.

Protecting the Source

Water stress is not to blame for the ebb in trade and economic activity in the region, but as the area struggles economically, necessary improvements to its infrastructure falter. According to estimates, as much as 20 percent of treated drinking water leaks from dilapidated distribution systems in the region, and nearly $1 billion in upgrades are needed. There have been substantial investments and improvements over the past several decades because of increased federal investment and attention to improve the systems' quality and sustainability.

Even with the improved conditions, pollution — often attributed to agricultural runoff — can still render the lakes' water unusable. In 2014, for example, a toxic algae bloom affected much of the supply from Lake Erie. But perhaps no incident has attracted more public attention and warranted more concern than the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. After the city temporarily switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, its drinking water was contaminated by lead and other toxic substances as a result of inadequate water treatment.

Urban areas beyond the basin's boundaries — many facing the same economic malaise and aging infrastructure problems as cities along the lakes — do not have the benefit of access to the large lakes' water. The water supplying these municipalities and their industries, in fact, comes from groundwater reserves, sometimes buried deep, overexploited or even unsuitable for drinking. These areas are denied the lakes' bounty in no small part because of the Great Lakes Compact, ratified in late 2008. The agreement, in which Canada is a voluntary participant, governs how the U.S. states and Canadian provinces surrounding the lakes can use their water. It restricts the amount of water that can exit the basin.

For example, the small town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, which sits outside Lake Michigan's watershed, requires formal approval to receive any water from the lake, despite the fact that it is less than 32 kilometers from its shores. Currently, the municipality relies on groundwater, but the quality of that supply will not be adequate to meet new standards by 2018. Though the amount of water that the city would consume is a drop in the bucket for the Great Lakes system as a whole, the objections that the plan still raises, despite its conditional approval under the compact, illustrates just how protective the basin is of its greatest resource.

Where There's Water

Like other parts of the industrial heartland of the United States, the Great Lakes region has fallen on hard times. But consistent, reliable water availability, which has given the region a clear advantage over the U.S. Southwest or the Great Plains, is one of many factors that could contribute to an economic resurgence. Though traditional manufacturing is unlikely to return to the levels of its heyday, advanced manufacturing centers, especially those supported by government initiatives, will remain a possibility. The government and private industry have already invested billions of dollars to improve infrastructure along the lakes and the connected St. Lawrence Seaway.

While prolonged droughts and habitual overuse and mismanagement threaten water supplies in other areas of the United States, the Great Lakes provide a more assured fresh water source important for any industrial activity and related electricity production. Protecting this inherent resource advantage is crucial, so major changes to the regulations that govern water transfers from the basin — even to neighboring counties and states, let alone across the country or around the world — are unlikely.

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