That point was made clear on February 5 when the Village of Somers in Kenosha County, WI applied to the state Department of Natural Resources to divert water from Lake Michigan. The community wants 1.2 million gallons a day, and up to 2 million gallons of water daily in high stress events, in anticipation of future population growth. The application will only need state approval, according to the DNR, since the amount of water is below 5 million gallons per day. Anything more than that would need all states within the Great Lakes basin plus the Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec to weigh in.
Lake Michigan holds 1.3 quadrillion gallons of water. So the village’s ask is a pittance. But the issue that rankles Evans is that, if approved, the Somers application is the fourth Great Lakes water diversion proposal in the past thirteen years.
In effect, said Evans and other diversion opponents, the impediments to diverting Great Lakes water that were established in an eight-state compact 13 years ago are steadily being breached.
“On one hand it’s terrible, because I know the climate will make the world’s clean water problem even worse. You can’t deny that,” said Evans. “But where do you draw the line and who gets to decide what happens?”
“You see [diversion proposals] crop up one at a time,” added James Clift, the deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “We usually see them in Wisconsin because the line of the basin is closest to the lake itself. Some of it is growth within the community and they have limited places to get water. Other times, it’s commercial or residential growth in areas that were formally agriculture.”
In all these cases, communities are required to return all water back to the Great Lakes that isn’t used. Clift is not that concerned.
“The farther these [diversion requests] are away from the lakes, the more unrealistic it is,” says Clift. “You’d never see Great Lakes water being taken over the Rocky Mountains. Anything over the Rocky Mountains, we’re safe.”
But on this side of the Rockies, there has also been some talk for a while about the communities around the Ogallala Aquifer. Beneath the Great Plains and stretched from the southern end of South Dakota to the northwestern corner of Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer is declining rapidly. Recoverable water has dropped 9 percent overall since extensive groundwater pumping began, and the future does not look good.
“I think the major trip [for Great Lakes water] in the next 50 years is the lowering of the Ogallala Aquifer and the impact that is going to have on farm commodities and food supply,” says Dave Dempsey, a Great Lakes policy expert and author of Great Lakes for Sale. “The transferring of Great Lakes water that distance is more economically viable.”
The Ogallala Aquifer produces almost one-fifth of the corn, wheat, cotton, and cattle in the United States today.
In theory, it’s possible those areas in the Great Plains could make a play for the Great Lakes at some point, according to Clift. But in order for that to happen, the communities would have to change the federal law and amend the compact before applying for a diversion.
“That pressure could build over time,” says Clift. “Which is why it’s important to start recognizing the limitations of water and where we expect water to be in the future.”
While long-distance water diversions seem like a far off scenario, it’s not all conjecture. In Oregon, a company is actively planning to train water across the country to regions where water supplies are low. Whether this means this could eventually mean the Great Lakes is unclear, but it’s evident that bulk water transport is looking to be a more serious consideration.
The future of water diversions largely depends on the severity of climate change and what that will look like across the country, said Dempsey. Desalination plants have increased in the Southwest United States and across the world, but while the prices for converting salt water to fresh water have dropped, the process is expensive and comes with its own set of issues such as brine disposal.
There is also the possibility of mass migration to the Great Lakes. People may come to the basin, a place that experts say will be the least affected by climate change, and use the water here instead of diverting it. But Dempsey says both could happen, too.
“The question for me is not if the compact will change, but how long it’s going to take,” said Dempsey. “It may take 10, 20, or 100 years. But severe drought in the Southwest will increase pressure at the federal level and they’ll have to decide the most economically viable solution.”