Ten Threats: Demand for Drinking Water Increasing

  • Water diversion is an increasing threat to the Great Lakes. As communities grow so does the demand. (Photo by Brandon Bankston)

We’re continuing the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks at where the demand for water will be greatest:


We’re continuing the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field
guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks
at where the demand for water will be greatest.

Right around the Great Lakes is where there’s going to be more demand
for drinking water. Water officials say as cities and suburbs grow, so
does the need for water. Some towns very near the Great Lakes say they
need lake water right now, but in some cases they might not get it. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:

People who live around the Great Lakes have long used the lakes’ water
for transportation, industry, and drinking water. Most of the water we
use, gets cleaned up and goes back in the lakes.

That’s because the Great Lakes basin is like a bowl. All the water used
by communities inside that bowl returns to the lakes in the form of
groundwater, storm water runoff, and treated wastewater, but recently, thirsty
communities just outside the basin—outside that bowl—have shown an
interest in Great Lakes water.

Dave Dempsey is a Great Lakes advisor to the environmental group
“Clean Water Action.”

“We are going to be seeing all along the fringe areas of the Great Lakes
basin all the way from New York state to Minnesota, communities that
are growing and have difficulty obtaining adequate water from nearby
streams or ground water.”

Treated water from those communities won’t naturally go back to the
basin. Treated wastewater and run-off from communities outside the
Great Lakes basin goes into the Mississippi River system, or rivers in the
east and finally the Atlantic Ocean.

The Great Lakes are not renewable. Anything that’s taken away has to be
returned. For example, when nature takes water through evaporation, it
returns it in the form of rain or melted snow. When cities take it away, it
has to be returned in the form of cleaned-up wastewater to maintain that
careful balance.

Dave Dempsey says the lakes are like a big giant savings account, and
we withdraw and replace only one percent each year.

“So, if we should ever begin to take more than one percent of that
volume on an annual basis for human use or other uses, we’ll begin to
draw them down permanently, we’ll be depleting the bank account.”

Some of the citiesthat want Great Lakes water are only a few miles from
the shoreline. One of the most unique water diversion requests might come
from the City of Waukesha, in southeastern Wisconsin. The city is just 20 miles
from Lake Michigan. Waukesha is close enough to smell the lake, but it
sits outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha needs to find another
water source because it’s current source – wells—are contaminated with

Dan Duchniak is Waukesha’s water manager. He says due to the city’s
unique geology, it’s already using Great Lakes water. He says it taps an
underground aquifer that eventually recharges Lake Michigan.

“Water that would be going to Lake Michigan is now coming from Lake
Michigan…. our aquifer is not contributing to the Great Lakes any more,
it’s pulling away from the Great Lakes.”

Officials from the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec
recently approved a set of rules that will ultimately decide who can use
Great Lakes water. The new rules will allow Waukesha—and some
other communities just outside the basin—to request Great Lakes water,
and drafters say Waukesha will get “extra credit” if it can prove it’s
using Lake Michigan water now.

Environmentalists are still concerned that water taken from the Lakes be
returned directly to the Lakes, but some say even that could be harmful.

Art Brooks is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of
Wisconsin- Milwaukee. He says the water we put back still carries some
bi-products of human waste.

“No treatment plant gets 100 percent of the nutrients out of the water,
and domestic sewage has high concentrations of ammonia and
phosphates. Returning that directly to the lake could enhance the growth
of algae in the lake.”

That pollution could contribute to a growing problem of dead zones in
some areas of the Great Lakes. Brooks and environmentalists concede
that just one or two diversions would not harm the Great Lakes, but they
say one diversion could open the floodgates to several other requests, and
letting a lot of cities tap Great Lakes water could be damaging.

Derek Sheer of the environmental group “Clean Wisconsin” says some
out-of-basin communities have already been allowed to tap Great Lakes
water under the old rules.

“The area just outside of Cleveland–Akron, Ohio– has a diversion
outside of the Great Lakes basin, so they’re utilizing Great Lakes water
but they’re putting it back.”

There are several communities that take Great Lakes water, but they, too,
pump it back. The new water rules still need to be ok-ed by the legislature of
each Great Lakes state, and Congress. Since the rules are considered a
baseline, environmental interests throughout the region say they’ll lobby
for even stricter rules on diversions.

For the GLRC, I’m Christina Shockley..

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