Great Lakes Journal: Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting

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Those of us who have grown up in the Midwest (which I define, roughly, as between the Appalachians and the Mississippi) are amazed the first time we venture west and encounter thousands of miles of arid land.

At home, we're surrounded by water, and assume this is the way man was meant to live. If we were meant to live in the desert land of Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas, we think to ourselves, we'd have been born cold-blooded. When we see the Georgia governor on the television praying for rain, though, it makes us feel the way you feel walking down a strange street with an unusually large amount of money in your pocket: uneasy.

It's no secret that the Great Lakes states need to retool, find new industries to replace the steel mills, rubber plants and auto factories that stand as rusting memorials to better times. Water is a vital part of what we can offer. It is one of the competitive advantages with which we hope to entice new businesses to our region.

It is also an advantage that an extended drought in a Plains states could threaten. After a few ruined wheat and corn crops, the idea of piping Lake Superior water west could find a great deal of support. We've already heard politicians such as New Mexico governor Bill Richardson complain that the West is suffering needlessly from a lack of water, while states like Wisconsin are awash in it.

A drought may not even be needed to trigger this conversation. The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the western plains, provides about 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. It could be dried up within 25 years. A recent projection of metro area growth by the year 2025 showed a continued major population shift away from the Great Lakes region in favor of the south and west.

The projected population shift could work against us, too, by diminishing our political power and thereby our ability to fend off a water grab. The lake water is protected by legislation, most recently by the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which reserves for states and provinces contiguous to the lakes the right to call the shots about how its water is used. What the government gives, however, the government can take away. Ask the Erie, the Shawnee, the Mingo, the Huron, and other Native American tribes that had the misfortune to occupy Great Lakes land that others wanted. They had treaties, too. Lots and lots of treaties.

The prize here is enormous. The Great Lakes, bordered by eight states and two provinces, hold six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, 20% of the world's surface supply. Only 1% of the water is replenished annually by rain, and the levels have been dropping for years. The Great Lakes Water Use Database shows that 41 billion gallons are used every day. And no one knows for sure what the environmental consequences would be from displacing such large volumes of water.

The physical limitations of transporting large volumes of water vast distances have been solved long ago. A friend of mine living in a cabin in Colorado, was complaining about the lack of water. When asked why he didn't capture rainwater from his roof, he replied that he wasn't permitted to; that water was already the property of California.

Apocryphal? Perhaps, but canals have been sucking the Colorado River to California since the 1930s. The China South-North Water Transfer Project, begun in 2002 with an anticipated finish date of 2050, will transfer water from the Yangtze River north 800 miles to thirsty provinces. If a similar pipeline were built here, it could reach from Duluth to Denver, Chicago to Dallas, or Cleveland to Atlanta and beyond.

Opponents of the idea of diverting Great Lakes water often point to the example of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Once the world fourth-largest saline sea, irrigation projects that diverted the water from its feeder rivers has turned it into a ecological disaster, killing most of the live in it and ruining the lives of those who depended on it.

I don't expect this idea to gain traction in the near future, but, just as water with enough time and movement can turn a flat plain into the Grand Canyon, thirst and hunger could eventually make the tapping of the Great Lakes seem reasonable. As for me, you can have my clear gold when you take my dead, cold fingers from the spigot.

Thanks to Todd Ambs, Wisconsin DNR for the title quote. Hey Todd- long time, no see!

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