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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