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Pressures from climate change could challenge agreements safeguarding Great Lakes water

The Little Sable Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. Many of the legal diversions of water tap Lake Michigan.
Lester Graham
The Little Sable Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. Many of the legal diversions of water tap Lake Michigan.

This week a nationwide Associated Press story looked at the possibility of pumping water from the Mississippi River to the drought-stricken West. That might sound familiar. For years, people in the Great Lakes region have been wary of those dry states looking at diverting water from the Great Lakes.

The cost to pump water that far would be enormous, as Michigan Radio's Mark Brush reported in 2015. It would require hundreds of miles of large pipes. Since much of the distance would be uphill — across at least one mountain range — many new power plants would be needed to power the pumping stations along the way. In the past, it was believed the cost of that water would astronomical.

With years-long droughts in Western states, some areas are desperate for water. And when you’re desperate you might be tempted to spend astronomical amounts. The thinking is pretty simple: If the Great Lakes have so much water and we have so little, doesn’t it make sense to give us access?

“I think that’s very intuitive to people,” said University of Michigan professor Richard Rood. He studies climate change and its effects.

But the Great Lakes states have an agreement that bans diverting water from the lakes. The Great Lakes Compact was approved partly because they were concerned about diversions closer to home. Towns straddling or just outside the basin wanted access to the water. The Great Lakes Compact bans water diversions in most cases. And even if a diversion is approved, it takes a unanimous vote from all eight Great Lakes states.

Climate change and its effects are challenging all our notions about controlling water. Economic and political pressures are building.

“I believe that once those stresses get high enough, that really all treaties, all things that have been done by humans will be up for negotiation,” Rood said.

Climate change effects are happening sooner and causing challenges that are catching policymakers unprepared.

The water levels of the Great Lakes is a good example. The lakes have always had a cycle of high levels and then low levels. But the much quicker water-level changes, along with higher highs and lower lows, are new.

When water levels get extremely high as they have been in recent years, there aren’t a lot of mechanisms to lower the level. There’s no pressure valve.

“I feel as if one of the most important things to do to anticipate climate change for this region is to start to seriously think about water and water management associated with the Great Lakes,” Rood said.

He did not specifically say that the excess water could or should be pumped elsewhere. But all the tools and all the rules regarding the Great Lakes could be subject to unprecedented economic and political pressure if officials are not prepared.

Rood says they need to start looking at things anew.

“I think all of those compacts, all the agreements, any engineering assets that are currently available were designed for an old climate. And when they were considering the new climate, I don't think that they actually considered how quickly the climate is changing.”

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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