“Lake Michigan May Be Coming to Idaho”


Register today for FLOW’s Dec. 8 conversation with author Dave Dempsey on freshly updated ‘Great Lakes for Sale’

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of the prologue to Great Lakes for Sale (Mission Point Press, 2021) the freshly updated, must-read book by Great Lakes luminary and FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey. Be sure to buy the book, which makes a great gift, and register for FLOW’s live-streamed event set for 6:00 p.m. ET, Weds., December 8: A Conversation with Author Dave Dempsey on Great Lakes for Sale. Great Lakes advocate and award-winning author Sally Cole-Misch will facilitate the hour-long evening engagement.


In the summer of 2021, as a continuing, historic drought starved the American West of water, an old fear surfaced anew in the Great Lakes region.

“Will Great Lakes Water Be Oasis for Drought-Stricken America?” asked one headline. “Great Lakes Diversions Could Be More Numerous,” declared another.

Meanwhile, Great Lakes water levels had approached all-time highs in 2019 and 2020. In February 2020, University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson authored an opinion column in the Chicago Tribune, suggesting the Great Lakes states sell what he called the “unneeded” water.

Water is the badge, the signature, the soul of the place known as the Great Lakes. Diverting the waters of the Great Lakes is one thing—but if those waters could also be sold, it was all at risk.

“Vast swaths of California, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are also experiencing major droughts. Moving water from Lake Michigan to farmers and communities in these places would make everyone better off,” Henderson wrote. Given the need for water in the West, the Lake Michigan-bordering states alone could reap $244 billion by selling the extra water, he estimated.

Out West, some were eyeing the Great Lakes. In June 2021, commentator Bill Colley of KLIX Radio, the Fox News affiliate in Twin Falls, Idaho, took up the cause. Under the headline, “Idaho Drought Could Be Solved by Borrowing the Great Lakes,” he boasted that the growing political strength of the West in Washington, D.C., could make Great Lakes water transfers happen.

Popular will is the key,” Colley said. “Millions of thirsty western voters will have a lot of pull on policy. As the region grows, so does its power in the United States House of Representatives. By its design, the Senate is already favorable to western concerns.

“Lake Michigan may be coming to Idaho.”

Such talk vastly oversimplified the challenges of sending Great Lakes water two thousand miles westward. Engineering an uphill diversion would be extravagantly expensive. And the Great Lakes states had spent over a quarter century trying to build a defense against this very type of proposal.

Yet the Great Lakes states themselves are diverting an increasing volume of Great Lakes water.

And “the” Great Lakes state, Michigan, authorized the sale of its water for private profit in 2001.

In the summer and fall of 2021, there was new relevance to exploring the question of whether the Great Lakes were newly vulnerable to massive human manipulation and commercialization. Or was it all just a fevered nightmare?

So, the proposal to divert or sell Great Lakes water over a long distance was a difference in degree, not in kind. The eight Great Lakes states were already doing to the water what they hoped the West would never be allowed to do.

The issue was more than a matter of policy, statute, or money. Yes, transferring water in large volumes out of the Great Lakes might permanently lower them, disrupt shipping, alter fish populations, change coastal ecology, and more. The fear wasn’t just about that.

Water is the badge, the signature, the soul of the place known as the Great Lakes. Diverting the waters of the Great Lakes is one thing—but if those waters could also be sold, it was all at risk.

Somehow, in all the talk about building walls around the Great Lakes to protect them from raids by the Sun Belt, the issue of ownership and sale of Great Lakes water had gotten lost. Not because of public indifference, but because of myopia in the circles that determine public policy choices in state capitols and the U.S. Capitol.

In the summer and fall of 2021, there was new relevance to exploring the question of whether the Great Lakes were newly vulnerable to massive human manipulation and commercialization. Or was it all just a fevered nightmare?

Answering that question is the purpose of the second edition of Great Lakes for Sale. Since publication of the original in 2009, much has changed, and much has become clearer. It’s time to take a second look.


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