Book Shelf: Great Lake Water Wars

May 15, 2007


 Great Lakes' fate hangs in the balance
By Peter Annin Island Press, $25.95 
Reviewed by TOM HENRY

To those of us who have ever stood along the Great Lakes shoreline and given much thought to the seemingly endless sight of fresh water in front of us, it seems incomprehensible that this part of the country could ever have trouble quenching its thirst

Certainly, the Great Lakes region is more water-blessed than any other part of the world. We take water for granted. But what we don't realize is that this region could become the battleground for an epic, worldwide struggle this century as the Earth's population continues to expand, its climate continues to rise, and water supplies elsewhere continue to dry up or be rendered useless by pollution.

Peter Annin gets it.

He begins his fascinatingly ambitious book, "The Great Lakes Water Wars," by taking readers on a trip to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, site of what many consider one of jumankind's biggest engineering blunders.

The Soviets tried to accommodate parched regions of central Asia by diverting the sea's tributaries nearly 50 years ago, but the plan backfired.

Now, the Aral – once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water – is a fraction of what it was. Annin describes how, in 2004, he drove hours on what used to be a bed of water less than a half century ago.

Annin said during his Dec. 1 talk at the University of Toledo's College of Law that he's not suggesting the Great Lakes are destined to become the next Aral Sea

Nor is he predicting war as in military bloodshed.

But, clearly, history has shown the potential for disaster exists if the lakes are not properly managed. And any legal scholar worth his or her salt will tell you the Great Lakes region is a novice in the realm of water laws, a mere babe in comparison to courtroom battles that have occurred over water for decades out West.

Annin, who lives in Madison, Wis., walks readers through a detailed – albeit complex – history of projects intended to manipulate the lakes.

Some projects, which included grandiose schemes to connect the Great Lakes to watersheds as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, never got off the drawing board.

The most controversial is a project that has diverted Lake Michigan water away from the Chicago area for more than a century. Yet two major diversions in Ontario – Long Lac and Ogoki – have barely merited a shrug, perhaps because they send water into the lakes instead of taking it out.

Many Ohioans are largely oblivious to the fact that Akron has the newest diversion and that it got it largely by agreeing to return what was processed through its sewage-treatment network.

Water laws and their related policy are inherently an arcane subject.

Annin, a former Newsweek correspondent who directs Great Lakes expeditions for the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, breathes life into the subject.

He puts the diversion debate into a splendid historical context, deciphering much of the bureaucracy that has mired it and even capturing some of the unique political nuances among Great Lakes states during various administrations.

The book is a policy roadmap for readers who want to learn about the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, negotiated by Ohio Gov. Bob Taft's administration, to assert regional control of the water. Now under consideration by each state legislature, it could wind up in Congress for a ratification vote someday.

Water, energy and climate change are seen by experts as the 21st Century's three biggest environmental challenges.

Each is interrelated. Whether it's for drinking, for recreation, for industry that brings us jobs, or for energy sources that help reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming, water will – undeniably – become more coveted.

Newspapers throughout the region have ramped up their coverage of the diversion/bulk export issue since a small Canadian company called the Nova Group obtained a permit to ship tankers of Lake Superior water to Asia in 1998. My paper, the Toledo Blade, published an award-winning, four-day series on the topic in June 2001, on the eve of an historic summit in Niagara Falls, N.Y., among Great Lakes governors on this topic.

Though the Nova Group relinquished its permit in the heat of cross-border tension, the case exposed loopholes in this modern era of international trade laws – convincing governors that some water projects once thought of as far-fetched could be just around the corner. Fundamentally, the question is this: Who owns the water and can it be traded away like a commodity in the global marketplace?

Annin's book tackles this emerging trade issue in a comprehensive, panoramic way. It expands upon what has been reported piecemeal throughout the region with meticulous research for a one-of-a-kind book about Great Lakes water laws – thus, water politics – that could wind up being the first of many to come.

Tom Henry writes for the Toledo Blade in Ohio.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.

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