Freshwater Dreams and Schemes

The North American Great Lakes contain 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater, about one-fifth of the world’s available freshwater supply.


For more than 25 years, residents of the Great Lakes region have feared large-scale public works projects to take freshwater from the Lakes to thirsty, faster-growing areas of North America. That’s why the eight Great Lakes states and Congress last year approved a compact barring most water diversions of the Lakes, which contain 80% of the continent’s fresh water. But ideas about turning the Lakes into a cash cow, floating around for years, are not dead yet. At the same time, relatively little attention has been paid to the idea of “sharing” the water of the Lakes to alleviate a global humanitarian emergency in an era of freshwater scarcity.

In case you doubt the possibility that some are thinking very big in terms of moving the continent’s fresh water – for a profit – a recent paper by the Montreal Economic Institute proposes sending floodwaters from three rivers that run into James Bay to the Ottawa River watershed, and sending an equivalent amount of water from the Great Lakes to the U.S. for $7.5 billion annually. Frank Quinn of the Munk Centre for International Studies in Toronto disputed the MEI’s analysis of social and hydrological risks and benefits.

Great Lakes water diversions that were already underway before the Compact and the export of water in containers of 5.7 gallons or less are permitted under the Compact’s terms. Chicago has been diverting Great Lakes water on a large scale to the Mississippi River Basin since 1900, and has a current legal allowance of 3,200 cubic feet per second.

One issue not raised seriously in either the Compact or the water movement proposals is whether the Great Lakes region or Canada and the U.S. would consider sharing the Lakes’ water to alleviate a humanitarian emergency elsewhere in the world. The Compact provides an exception to its diversion ban for humanitarian emergencies but does not specify the conditions that would trigger it.

Photo credit:  U.S. Coast Guard.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top