Water Transfers, Removals and Diversions Impacting the Great Lakes
A water diversion is the removal or transfer of water from one watershed to another. The term “consumptive use” is used to define diversions and exports, because the water is being “consumed” without then returning to its source.
The Great Lakes faces an uncertain future of climate change and the impacts of regional competition for food, energy, and water. Not surprisingly, every imaginable scheme to divert water from the Great Lakes has been contemplated, amounting to what historian Peter Annin has called “death by 1000 straws” in his book, Great Lakes Water Wars.
As droughts continue in the western United States, calls for water pipelines increasingly can be heard. Actor William Shatner is calling for $30 billion to build a pipeline from Seattle to Southern California. Similar “pipe dreams” are looking to source water from the Great Lakes. In 1999, a corporation attempted to divert water out of Lake Huron and ship it in tankers to China. Two Canadian provinces and the eight Great Lake states united to adopt the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Sustainable Water Resources Agreement among all of these jurisdictions, and a separate Great Lakes Compact was created among the states to ban such diversions.
There’s a big fight brewing over water worldwide. From drought-stricken California, to Canada, to Germany and beyond, the Nestlé corporation is one of the key players in a worldwide effort to privatize our finite water resources and then sell it back to us in plastic bottles in and outside the Great Lakes Basin.
Nestlé has now revived plans to more than double its pumping from 150 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm or 576,000 gallons per day (gpd) in Osceola County just north of Evart, Michigan. Production Well PWB101, White Pine Springs Site, as it is known, is located between two cold water Muskegon River tributary creeks, Twin and Chippewa Creeks. Last winter, when Nestlé applied for this pumping increase using the state’s computer water withdrawal assessment tool, it failed. Nestle then requested and obtained a site specific review by DEQ staff that showed that only minimal declines in water levels in the summer of 2016. LEARN MORE
The Public Trust: Protecting the Great Lakes from Diversions
Protecting the Great Lakes from diversion and export has always been central to FLOW’s work. FLOW was founded by Jim Olson shortly after his work as the litigator for the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) in their case again Nestle Waters North America/Ice Mountain.
Through their case, the MCWC was able to halve the daily amount of water pumped, bottled, and diverted from the Great Lakes. More recently, FLOW has advocated for improving the State of Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT), which is required to estimate the likely impact of a water withdrawal on groundwater, streams, and rivers by anyone proposing to make a new or increased large quantity withdrawal from the waters of the state prior to beginning the withdrawal. The WWAT could be improved with the inclusion of more data points, and by taking into account the impact of consumptive water uses, such as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, which permanently takes water out of the water cycle.
The International Joint Commission (IJC) - a binational commission created to manage the boundary waters of the U.S. and Canada - has prioritized protecting the Great Lakes from diversions and excessive consumptive water practices. Since our inception, FLOW has been advancing the public trust as a guiding legal principle to the IJC to manage the Great Lakes. In January 2016, the IJC released a report reviewing the effectiveness of the Agreement and Compact. While celebrating their overall effectiveness, the IJC also calls for additional protections and identified the public trust principles as a key legal mechanism to protect against the uncertain negative impacts on the Great Lakes in the future.
2016 will mark the first test case of the Great Lakes Compact. The city of Waukesha, WI, located a few miles west of Milwaukee, lies outside the Great Lakes basin and is requesting an exception to the ban on diversions of Great Lakes water under the Great Lakes Compact.
The proposed Waukesha diversion application is the first since the Great Lakes Compact was adopted in 2008. This application will serve as a precedent for other future diversion requests. With greater water scarcity and competition for energy and food needs, the public trust will be increasingly important to protect the Great Lakes against future diversions.