No more than 1% from Great Lakes!

Two of the leading thinkers on Great Lakes issues believe in no uncertain terms that humans should draw no more than 1% of their volume in any year.
Why the 1% standard?
Peter Annin, author of the Great Lakes Water Wars, and John Magnuson, a retired water scientist from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, base their convictions on the finding that the five lakes receive about 1% of their volume in new inputs from rain and snow annually.
Since it is a closed basin, if we take out more than that, we would have a declining fresh water resource. That is no small matter when you realize that the Great Lakes contain 20% of the world’s supply of fresh water and 95% of the U.S. total. This is a treasure bestowed on us by the glaciers from thousands of years ago. The natural reservoir is not replaceable.
“It would be ridiculous” to withdraw more, Magnuson told a recent gathering of staff and trustees of The Nature Conservancy from eight states.
Annin, who now heads the Environmental Change Initiative at Notre Dame, reminds Great Lakes advocates that great bodies of water are “not invincible to the hand of man.” He cites the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, which have been tapped to exhaustion by irrigation and other human uses. Neither flows to the sea, ending rather in a trickle at their ends.
He cites the Aral Sea, another closed system about the size of Lake Huron between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. A major irrigation project under the Soviet regime has reduced its volume by 90% and its surface area by 75%. Its vast shores are now a salty dust bowl.
There have been a good number of diversions from the Great Lakes over the years, the most infamous being the Chicago Canal, a 26-mile project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900 so Chicago’s sewage could be flushed down the Mississippi River to St. Louis. Thirteen miles of that diversion had to be blasted from bedrock. It was the equivalent of digging the Panama Canal.
Still, the Chicago Diversion accounts for only 1% of the water loss from the connected Michigan-Huron lakes. Evaporation and the out-flow through the St. Clair River account for the rest. The St. Clair, with its widened channel from dredging, takes out 60 times as much as the Chicago reversal.
Annin, who sees the world moving from the “century of oil to the century of water,” believes the Great Lakes are at a historical turning point, hinging to some extent on the outcome of the Waukesha, Wisconsin test case for a new diversion.
The City of Waukesha, which is tapping out its underground aquifers, has asked the Great Lakes Commission for permission to draw water from Lake Michigan instead. Under the Great Lakes Compact created in 2008, the city must get a sign-off from the governments of all eight states that border the lakes.
It is a legitimate applicant because it lies in a county that straddles the divide between the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi system. The precedent-setting case is expected to be decided in 2012.
All of us the environmentalists need to put the Waukesha request into perspective. It is asking for a maximum 11 to 18.5 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day. That sounds like a lot, but not in the context of the 1% replenishment rate for the five lakes, which amounts to 160 billion gallons per day.
The Great Lakes Compact will prevent wholesale raids on the fresh water from the five lakes by thirsty areas outside the basin. No major diversions will be approved under the congressionally approved compact. Instead, places like Texas and California will need to resort to conservation and will have to restrain their growth. Water guzzling golf courses and farms in dry areas will face constraints.
But if Waukesha returns most of its Michigan water to the basin, which is the plan, their request needs to be evaluated in pragmatic terms. There are other issues, such as the route for returning the used waters, but the most material issue is simply the amount of the withdrawal on a net basis.
That doesn’t look like a big deal against the 1% standard.
The Environmental Impact Statement now being conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will need to highlight those pragmatic calculations.

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  • The Great Lakes are a one time gift from the glaciers, and only 1% of the water is renewed every year in terms of rainfall and snowmelt. However, saying then that we should allow UP TO 1% of Great Lakes water to be consumed or diverted every year is faulty judgement. First of all, that 1% of water besides being available for drinking water, also provides ecological benefits (e.g. higher water levels needed for wetlands that provide habitat for fish and aquatic life), recreational benefits to boaters, etc. In addition, warmer water temperatures and decresed ice pack on the Lakes in recent years due to climate change is leading to higher evaporative loss of Great Lakes water than has been seen previously. Thus, that 1% figure may be outweighed by climatic effects. Secondly, although when looked at individually, Waukesha’s diversion might not seem to be a large quantity in context of the 1% renewability rate of the Great Lakes, the diversion application is very important as it sets a precedent for the international Great Lakes Compact regulating water diversions and in-basin conservation. Clearly, no single Great Lakes diversion is going to be anywhere close to the 1% renewability rate, but when taken together, there could be significant cumulative impacts on water levels and water quantity from all existing and future diversions of Great Lakes water. So it is important and fitting that WDNR is looking at the Waukesha application for not only environmental, social, and economic impacts, but also looking at direct, indirect, and cummulative effects on the Lakes from some fairly controversial provisions that are part of Waukesha’s request.

  • Laurie Longtine

    Don’t assume that “return flow” means 100% of water diverted across the subcontinental divide will be returned to the Great Lakes basin.  The Great Lakes Compact’s standard is “less consumptive use”.  Consumptive use is water that will not be returned** to the originating basin because it runs off to a separate  watershed, in this case, the Mississippi River watershed.  Varying percentages of consumptive use have been bandied about, 15% most often, but I once heard someone say 25%. The amount has not yet been determined.  In any case, it will not be 100% so that the cumulative effects of this diversion, plus other diversions that this one may pave the way for, need to be accounted for.  Suddenly, 1% doesn’t seem like “only 1%” any more, does it? 

    The Great Lakes are a world class resource. We should be thinking and planning in those terms and not bare minimums.   

    ** such as water used for washing cars, watering lawns and gardens, etc.

    • Anonymous

      I agree that Waukesha should be held to a high standard for return of Lake Michigan water. Why not 100% return, even if the compact allows a lower percentage?

      • james rowen

        Hi, John; I had put up a link to your post and it appears again in a posting incorporating the responses. Below.

      • Alex Young

        I think the point re: 100% return is that there will be losses somewhere along the line depending on the various uses off the water – I imagine that with washing cars and watering lawns not 100% of the water is going to make it back to Lake Michigan: evaporation, depending on where on the divide you are, etc… I suppose in some industrial uses and so on the water doesn’t end up going back down the drain… not to mention, what happens if I fill my RV’s water tank off the hose and then drive west? There will be inefficiencies that result in less than 100% return – the amount of those inefficiencies? I don’t know, I’m not a water expert… Are they material? Would the cumulative effect of those inefficiencies across all potential diversions to come be material enough to affect the reservoir? I don’t know, but I imagine that’s what the previous commenters were driving at regarding why there would not be 100% return.

        • Waukesha is currently stating that they think they can return 100% (which I think John is aware of). This is of interest, because in addition to the consumptive use that you detail above, there is also Waukesha’s proposal that when we get a bad rain storm (greater than a “ten year” storm), they will divert their treated water to the Fox River and Mississippi River systems so as not to cause or contribute to flooding on Underwood Creek and the Menomonee River (their preferred return route to Lake Michigan). Underwood is probably the most “flashy” or flood prone stream in the state or certainly in the top 5. So how can they still meet the 100% you ask? Their pipes are old, cracked, and leaking, and essentially now they are treating 20% more water than they are doling out. In the business, this is called inflow and infiltration or I/I, meaning that groundwater and rain water is entering those pipes in many places. So since their pipes are in such bad condition, they should be able (on a 5 year average–also “creative” application of the Compact) to return 100%. Industry standard for I/I is less than 10%. Also note that with this diversion, Waukesha will be adding tens if not hundreds of miles of pipe to their existing infrastructure, which will strain their existing problems with maintaining their pipes. That is a serious environmental and economic issue in my mind, and really questions whether the diversion is the most sustainable alternative over the long term life of this infrastructure. Waukesha often states that the diversion would be less energy intensive than pumping groundwater, but I don’t believe they are taking in account the energy to build, maintain, and operate this vase increase in infrastructure.

          • Anonymous

            Presumably, the DNR EIS will take into account all of these insightful comments. It would be incomplete without such calculations.