A History of Great Lakes Protection

A question of vital importance is whether sustainability of the Great Lakes is possible. To grasp the complexity of the question it is necessary to look at some basic facts about water. Water cannot be destroyed by natural means – it can only be redistributed over the planet as it cycles through evaporation from bodies of water and subsequent condensation into rain. This redistribution is strongly influenced by factors associated with climate change and global warming, and means, for example, that today’s arable land might become tomorrow’s desert.

For the foreseeable future, the Great Lakes ecosystem will continue to be America’s greatest repository of fresh water, even though we continue to challenge it by pretending it is “sustainable.” In truth, as long as we use the lakes as disposal sites for raw or poorly treated sewage (as Milwaukee does during flood periods) and as depositories for farm runoff and industrial chemicals, their long-term sustainability can be questioned.

Although the Great Lakes contain about 5,438 cubic miles of water, only 1% of this is replaced each year – by rain, snowfall, and groundwater. The other 99% is glacial melt from the last ice age. One author put it this way. “Think of it like a giant water bank account that earns less than 1% interest per year. If you start pulling water from the principal, you may need another ice age to get it back.” It is possible that the drop in lake levels represents the inability of rain, snowfall, and groundwater to sustain the renewable 1% of the Great Lakes, although scientists are still debating the exact causes of lake level drop.

With climate change and increasing scarcity of freshwater, pressure will mount on water-rich regions to share their liquid wealth. Conflicts are almost inevitable, as our oil-driven economy gives way to one based on the availability of freshwater. Man could survive in the absence of oil, but without water, all life is extinguished.

Efforts to protect the Great Lakes began in the late 1800s. Once the hydrology and geology around the lakes were understood, the area was designated the Great Lakes Basin. Eight states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan, along with Ontario and Quebec to the north – began to assume responsibility for protecting the five lakes.

In the late 1800s, the governments of the basin entities began a protracted debate about how best to protect the lakes from diversions and overuse that could undermine their integrity. One of the first diversions actually turned out to benefit Lake Michigan. In 1900, raw sewage and rotten stench convinced Chicago to take action, and it determined that the problem might be resolved by reversing the flow of its namesake river so that it no longer emptied into Lake Michigan. After the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed, water flowed out of Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi River, washing Chicago’s wastes westward. For years after the diversion, Illinois and Wisconsin battled in the courts about how much water could be diverted. In most instances, Wisconsin prevailed, but these battles were just a few of the many fought over diversion of Great Lakes water. It would be a century before Great Lakes states reached an agreement.

Over the years, many schemes, serving many interests, were proposed to remove fresh water from the Great Lakes. Some of the schemes were rather grandiose. In 1981 the Powder River Pipeline Company wanted to mine and grind coal in Wyoming and Montana. The company planned to add water to the coal to form a slurry and pump it to coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. They argued that this would be cheaper and more efficient than shipping coal by rail, even though 1,900 miles of 42-inch pipe would have to be buried to transport the slurry. Powder River hoped they could obtain the water near the western coal beds, but if this did not work out, they would lay a second pipeline to carry water westward from Lake Superior. Fortunately, the states did not favor either proposal.

The Powder River proposal, and another one that involved piping water from the Great Lakes to replenish the falling Ogallala aquifer under the plains states, stirred the Great Lakes states to continue their efforts to hammer out ways to sustain the lakes. But the plan that really galvanized the states into action was one put forth in 1998 by John Febbraro, a Canadian entrepreneur. He proposed to equip an empty bulk freighter with a large liner inside its hold. Water would be pumped out of Lake Superior, purified, and transported by the freighter to Asia where it would be sold to governments lacking freshwater.

Officials and bureaucrats, who had worked for years to develop a set of regulations to prevent export and diversion of water from the Great Lakes, were stunned when they learned that Febbraro had submitted an application for the withdrawal of bulk water—and that he had received permission to export 158 million gallons of water to Asia per year. After many confrontations between Febbraro and basin states, Canada finally prevailed on the entrepreneur to withdraw his permit.

In 2001, dozens of bureaucrats and attorneys for the Great Lakes states, Ontario, and Quebec, after days of conference calls and meetings, came up with two documents that would be the basis for protecting the Great Lakes. The first was called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. The second was called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. These documents formed an agreement among the eight Great Lakes states and Canada, spelling out their responsibilities in protecting the integrity of the lakes.

In 2005 the Great Lakes Compact was finally “accepted” by the various governmental entities. The compact is a lengthy, carefully-worded document that combines principles and restrictions set forth in the two documents mentioned above. To date it merely represents words on paper – a gentlemen’s agreement, as it were. Legally the compact has never been accepted as law, and it will remain toothless until the legislatures of all eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. congress ratify it. That means it is possible to divert lots of water from the Great Lakes, but it would be difficult considering the legacy of agreements among Great Lakes states and Canada.

Is it possible to ensure sustainability of the Great Lakes? Probably not, at least in the usual sense of “sustainability.” The lakes are not the same ones that existed several thousand years ago. Changes in water levels continue to occur, exotic species have established themselves, at times the lakes still receive raw sewage, and the water contains such toxic chemicals as polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) and mercury—the PCBs left over from ill-advised dumping by paper industries and the mercury from coal-fired power plants.

But despite these insults to the integrity of the Great Lakes, the greater sustainability issue is likely to hinge on global warming. Peter Annin, in his book The Great Lakes Water Wars, summed up the situation this way. “The effects of climate change on the Great Lakes could dwarf the impacts of human water withdrawals, raising regional water tensions to unprecedented heights. That people are fighting over water in one of the wettest regions on earth is an ironic sign of just how precious potable freshwater has become.”

Sources: The Great Lakes Water Wars by Peter Annin, National Geographic, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,,,, and