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Choosing Fresh Water Forever

Each year, rainfall and snowmelt replenish only about one percent of the water in the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the Great Lakes basin. The other 99 percent of water in the basin is finite and nonrenewable.

March 7, 2003 |

  Crystal Lake, Beulah, MI.

The five freshwater seas that define the Great Lakes basin make up one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Nowhere else on earth does the map turn so blue with water or the lives of so many people revolve around its gifts.

An immediate concern and responsibility of Great Lakes leaders, therefore, must be the job of keeping the region’s freshwater resources safe for the well-being of future generations.    

The basin holds nearly one-fifth of the planet’s fresh surface water, yet this vast resource is just as vulnerable to depletion and degradation as the many aquatic ecosystems around the world that are drying up and plagued with pollution. Water waste and pollution, as well as export proposals, threaten the ability of Great Lakes families, farms, manufacturers, and others to use and enjoy the region’s web of aquifers, wetlands, rivers, and lakes.

Great Lakes governments now are deciding whether to treat water as a common tradable commodity or as a vital natural resource to protect for the needs of future generations and the environment. But Great Lakes water is not a product to sell. The region’s U.S. governors and Canadian premiers must act quickly to complete negotiations on a basin-wide plan that conserves, protects, and improves this globally unique freshwater source.

Fragile Resource
Rainfall and snowmelt replenish each year only about one percent of the water in the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that make up the Great Lakes basin. The other 99 percent of water in the basin is finite and nonrenewable. This slow rate of recharge is what makes the Great Lakes fragile and susceptible to long-term damage.

Threats to Great Lakes water security range from local overuse to misguided export schemes. Unregulated water use has stressed some Great Lakes-basin groundwater sources to the point that nearby wells fail regularly. In addition, private companies and others now propose selling and shipping Great Lakes water out of the basin, where it no longer can replenish the fragile ecosystem.

A single water withdrawal, whether by a water bottling company or rock quarry, is not often perceptible in a system with the magnitude of the Great Lakes basin. But taken together, unlimited residential, commercial, and industrial water withdrawals — along with pollution’s depletion of clean water supplies — can weaken a community’s ability to sustain residents, businesses, and wildlife.

Keeping the region’s precious water clean and abundant is a matter of conserving, recycling, and continually cleaning the freshwater resources that human activities increasingly waste and contaminate.

World-Class Protection
The solution is, first, to understand how vital and vulnerable Great Lakes water and water-dependent resources are to human activities. The next step is to establish policies as soon as possible that promote efficient water use, create clear standards for all water withdrawals, and improve the ecosystem’s health.

Great Lakes leaders already have taken the initiative and begun to address these issues in an important and cooperative agreement called the Great Lakes Charter Annex.

In it, the region’s governors and premiers outlined in June 2001 the basic principles that state and provincial governments need for evaluating water withdrawal proposals and avoiding harmful projects.

The Great Lakes Charter Annex also calls on the states and provinces to develop coordinated standards that guide individual water use decisions toward the common goal of protecting and enhancing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The principles advanced by the agreement, however, remain nonbinding. They must become standards that are legally enforceable.

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