Can the Midwest repel demands from afar for its water? The eight states (Illinois included) and two Canadian provinces that border the lakes hope no outsiders can breach the invisible, 5,500-mile wall they’ve erected: In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law — let us draw a breath — the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. All eight states and Congress approved the compact, with the Canadians applauding. It’s intended to severely, although not absolutely, block new diversions of water outside the Great Lakes’ vast drainage basin (see accompanying map). A 1909 U.S. treaty with Canada also could thwart big diversions.
Whatever protection Washington giveth to any of us, of course, Washington conceivably can taketh away. Congress typically doesn’t meddle with regional water compacts. But yesterday isn’t forever: The steady erosion of U.S. House seats from Illinois and other Northern states to the Sunbelt invites peril if droughts punish those states. And the Chicagoan sworn to protect Lake Michigan may, um, evolve if arid Arizona tries to conserve water by outlawing construction of her dream retirement condo…
Yes, there’s hypocrisy for Chicagoans: This city reversed a river’s flow so Lake Michigan water would wash away its wastes. And many suburbs that draw from the lake sit outside its watershed; rain that falls on them flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. One mitigating factor is that water diversions in Ontario put more water into the lakes than Chicago flushes out.
The compact doesn’t cruelly forbid emergency outflows. David Naftzger, executive director of the Chicago-based Council of Great Lakes Governors, tells us it permits short-term humanitarian diversions if, say, a hurricane ravages water systems in Southeastern states.
In other words, the water isn’t completely protected but it would take a legislative act to start shipping Great Lakes water all over the country. This could become quite the political battle between Sunbelt and Rust Belt states. Which argument would win out: the Sunbelt has more people and potential or the Rust Belt has communities with much longer histories and might be more ecologically sustainable?
Two other quick thoughts related to this:
1. Interestingly, much of the Chicago suburbs are not in the Great Lakes basin as their water drains west to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico. This reminds me that the divide of the watersheds is not that far from Lake Michigan as Native Americans and traders would need portage over a ridge to get from the Chicago River to those flowing west (like the Des Plaines River). Yet, one group suggests over 75% of residents in northeastern Illinois get their water from Lake Michigan.
2. In another editorial on the same page, the Tribune noted that watching the drought in California could help remind Great Lakes area residents that water conservation should be a priority, even with the seemingly inexhaustible supply in the Great Lakes. There is no guarantee the Great Lakes will always exist.