Protecting the Great Lakes from a Thirsty World

Protecting the Great Lakes from a Thirsty World

By: Cheryl Mendoza, Lake Michigan Federation

What if the water coming out of your faucet was contaminated with unsafe levels of radium? Radium can over a long period of time, cause anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (especially bone cancer), and death. This is a serious issue that Waukesha, Wisconsin, a community just outside of the Great Lakes Basin, is facing. Communities in southeastern Wisconsin are pulling water out of the ground, to supply a growing number of homes and businesses, faster than nature can replenish it. As a result, the source of that water, the groundwater aquifer, has been dropping an average of 6 feet a year and is an astounding 300 feet lower than it was 50 years ago, according to an inventory of regional groundwater resources. Radium, which is naturally occurring in the ground, is drawn into groundwater as water levels drop. This problem worsens as the communities continue to grow. The most attractive solution to those living in the area is to divert water from Lake Michigan to meet their water supply needs, which would then be sent into the Mississippi River basin, forever leaving the Great Lakes.

So what would be the problem with sending Great Lakes water to help Waukesha? There are two sides to every story. Though the Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and 95 percent of North America’s fresh surface water, this seemingly limitless resource is, for the most part, not renewable. The Great Lakes are glacial deposits and only about one percent of the water in them is renewable through rain, snow and groundwater per year, according to the International Joint Commission. There are limits as to how much water can be taken out of the Great Lakes. Going beyond those limits means depleting the Great Lakes.

The problem is where to “draw the line.” Waukesha is not the only community close to the Great Lakes Basin looking at the Great Lakes for a potential new water supply as they outgrow their own. Additionally, there are places around the U.S. and beyond that have had a longstanding interest in Great Lakes water. For example, in 1959, supporters of the Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal proposed to divert Great Lakes water to Saskatchewan, the Southern U.S., and Mexico. In 1983 there was a bid to construct a 400-mile concrete canal from Lake Superior to the Missouri River. In 1984 Great Lakes water was wanted in the High Plains and Southwest U.S.

Though such proposals have not been successful to date, needs are becoming more urgent. In the next 25 years, the world will need at least 55 percent more freshwater than is now available to satisfy the growing global population. Whether Great Lakes water is diverted 5 miles outside of the basin to Waukesha or 5,000 miles to another country, the water is ultimately lost to the Great Lakes. The challenge is how to meet future water needs around the Great Lakes Basin, the United States, and the world while still protecting the Great Lakes Basin from being depleted and its many streams, rivers and lakes from being harmed.

Restrictions under international trade agreements and the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution make this a significant challenge. According to these agreements, once water is sold we cannot restrict water sales to others around the country or even the world. Further, we cannot put additional restrictions on people or industries outside of the Great Lakes Basin than the restrictions on those living in the Basin. For example, if we use water wastefully, we may not be able to require others who want to divert Great Lakes water to use that water conservatively.

More needs to be done because our current laws may not be strong enough to protect the Great Lakes from harmful diversion proposals if they are challenged under the terms of our trade agreements. Fortunately, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states and Canadian premiers recognize the seriousness of this threat and are taking proactive steps to develop world-class protection for the Great Lakes, called the Great Lakes Charter Annex. The Annex has three key principles upon which water withdrawals, both inside and those to be sent outside of the Great Lakes Basin, will be regulated:

  • Every new project must include all reasonably feasible water conservation measures;
  • No new project can cause significant harm – individually, or in combination with other projects – to the Great Lakes, their tributaries, or the people and wildlife they support;
  • Every project must be designed to actually improve the Great Lakes and their tributary lakes, streams, and underground aquifers. Avoiding harm is not enough.

These principles go beyond working to ensure Great Lakes water is used sustainably; they are intended to actually improve the Great Lakes. No other water management system in the world manages a watershed in such a proactive manner. If crafted properly into legally binding standards, the Annex will give this world-class resource, the Great Lakes Basin, the world-class protection it needs and deserves.

The challenge now is to develop the details of how the Annex principles will be implemented and for the region’s governments to make them legally binding. The goal of the Council of Great Lakes Governors is to release draft documents for public review on June 18. If not crafted carefully, there is potential for the Annex to have loopholes that could allow harmful diversions from the Great Lakes Basin and potentially even encourage diversions.

After the draft Annex documents are released, public hearings will be held around the Great Lakes Basin. Your voice is needed to push for strong protections for the Great Lakes. The Lake Michigan Federation will be taking an active role in helping the public weigh in on the Annex. This is an important time to speak out – the future of our Great Lakes depends on it.

For more information, or to be notified of public hearings and updates, contact Cheryl Mendoza at the Lake Michigan Federation at 616-850-0745 or



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.