Ten Threats: Southwest After Great Lakes Water?

  • This billboard was displayed along several major highways in Michigan. The sponsors were hoping to raise awareness about water diversion, but do these arid states really pose a threat to the Great Lakes? (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan Life )

We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of the myths of water withdrawals:


We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats
to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our
guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of
the myths of water withdrawals.

Environmentalists and policy makers say a thirsty world could pose a
major threat to the Great Lakes. Water wars have been predicted in arid
parts of the globe, and some say the laws of supply and demand might
one-day lead to a raid on the region’s fresh water. Reporter Mark Brush takes a
closer look at one claim: that states in the southwest will one day come
after the Great Lakes water… and finds that it might just be H2O hype…

Taking water out of the Great Lakes is a hot button issue, and no one is
more aware of this than politicians looking for votes. In the 2004
campaign, President Bush used the issue to rally a crowd in Traverse
City, Michigan:

“My position is clear. We are never going to allow the diversion of
Great Lakes water.”

(Sound of applause)

The issue taps into people’s emotions. People get outraged when they think
of someone taking water out of the Lakes – especially when they’ve seen lake
levels dropping over the years, and the region’s political leaders have listened
to those concerns. The states and provinces that surround the world’s largest fresh
water system are working on a compact that will prevent water diversions.

But where is the threat to Great Lakes water coming from? We
conducted an informal poll on the streets of Ann Arbor, and we asked
people: “who wants water from the Great Lakes?” Six out of the ten
people we talked to pointed to the west:

(Sound of street)

“Las Vegas, the Southwest.”

“Probably the dry states in the West. Arizona, Nevada.”

“I think the west should keep their damn hands off our water.”

But do the arid states in the West really pose a threat to Great Lakes
water? It turns out – this same question was asked more than twenty
years ago.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the possibility of
moving Lake Superior water to the Missouri River. It’s a distance of
about six hundred miles. Farmers in the High Plains states were hoping
to use this water to irrigate their crops.

Jonathan Bulkley is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at
the University of Michigan. Bulkley and his colleagues analyzed this
diversion plan, and he says the whole project would have been too

“We found it would take seven 1000 megawatt power plants dedicated to
lifting the water, because water needs to be lifted to reach these distant
locations, and in addition there would have to be conveyance structures
built to transport the water, and our conclusion was the total cost would
far exceed the value of the water.”

In other words, Bulkley found that it would be cheaper for these states to
find other sources of water – or to find ways to conserve the water they
had left, and this was a diversion of only 600 miles. A diversion all the
way to the Southwest would mean piping the water almost twice that

“We are always looking for extra water – everyone in the Southwest is
looking for extra water.”

Bob Barrett is a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project. It’s one of
the biggest water suppliers in the Southwest. The Project pulls water
from the Colorado River and delivers it to southern Arizona. Barrett
says he can’t imagine a situation where Great Lakes water is pumped for
more than a thousand miles to the Colorado River:

“Most people don’t realize it, but a gallon of water weighs about eight
pounds, and if you’re going to push that up and over the Rocky
Mountains you’re going to need a lot of power. (Laughs) So, it’s a good
idea, but I don’t see how anybody could pay for it.”

But some observers say even though it might not happen today – it could
happen in the future. They point to a fast-growing population and a fast-
dwindling fresh water supply in the southwest. They say that
combination could drive engineers and policy makers to devise a way to
get Great Lakes water.

But Barrett says for states like Arizona, California, and even Texas – it
would be cheaper for them to build desalinization plants… these plants
convert ocean water into drinking water:

“I mean why should Texas build for a canal and then have to maintain it
from the Great Lakes down to the state of Texas when they can go to the
Gulf Coast and build several desalinization plants, and then just pipe it
wherever they need it?”

So, a large-scale water diversion to the southwest seems unlikely.
Experts say water from the Great Lakes is much more likely to go to
cities and towns right on the edge of the basin, but as legislators move to
tighten restrictions on diversions – even these places will
have a hard time getting access to the water.

For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

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