In the next 25 years, at least 55 percent more fresh water than is now available will be needed to satisfy the growing global population. And thirst is not just a third-world problem. Fast growing communities around the United States are out-growing their water supply. For example, Los Angeles is moving toward privatizing public drinking water because demand is fast outpacing supply. Moreover, parts of North America’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest, are being depleted. There are even communities just outside the Great Lakes Basin that are looking at the Great Lakes as a potential new water supply as they outgrow their own.
The second part of this scenario is that less than one percent of water in the Great Lakes is renewed annually through rain, groundwater re-charge, and snowmelt. Add these up and it’s not outrageous to think that our precious Great Lakes could be tapped and sent to other parts of the country or around the world.
Unfortunately, we may not be able to protect the Great Lakes by “just saying no” to future water withdrawal projects, as we’ve been doing. Under international trade laws and the Constitution, we can’t restrict the flow of goods – water possibly included – from one state or country to another without a fair and consistent evaluation process for users.
To withstand legal challenges under these laws, we need objective decision-making standards that don’t discriminate between water withdrawal proposals coming from inside the Great Lakes, the Southwestern U.S., or overseas. If we move fast, we can develop standards that will benefit business while restoring the Great Lakes. Ironically, it appears that we may best protect the Great Lakes from harmful withdrawals by permitting other, limited withdrawals.