In the fall of 2020, my buddy John Fischer asked me to Google “Great Lakes water diversions” and let him know what I thought of the first article that popped up. It told the tale of a project (started in Ontario, Canada in 1925) to dam rivers just north of the Lake Superior / Hudson Bay divide. A ‘divide’ is the boundary that marks the high points between watersheds. The town of Watersmeet, for example, lies near the divide separating water that flows north toward Lake Superior and south to the Mississippi River. As for the 1925 Ontario project, some of the water that would normally flow north to Hudson Bay was diverted south to Lake Superior in an effort to stabilize water levels in the big lake. By adding this reverse flow to the lake (amounting to about 3 percent above Superior’s natural yearly input), one aim was to avoid lost shipping revenue in times when the water levels tended to be lower. Historically, the level of the Great Lakes cycle through high and low periods every thirty years or so. This difference between the high and low periods is, on average, around six feet. The long term average surface elevation for Lake Superior is calculated at 602 feet above sea level, meaning the big lake can naturally cycle between 596 feet to 608 feet above sea level.
The first diversion was done at Long Lac, just north of Terrace Bay, Ontario. It was designed to bring timber from inaccessible areas to the north of the lake using the redirected flow of the Kenogami River. The promise of jobs and economic stimulation north of Lake Superior were the chief goals, adding water to the big lake was a secondary benefit. The Ogoki River diversion was even more ingenious. Canada needed to up hydro-generation to aid World War II production. Rather than building the infrastructure to carry power generated in the far north, they decided that dumping more water into Lake Superior would allow them to increase hydro-generation at Niagara Falls! I had to admit to John that I had never heard of these project nor had it come up in any of the endless debates about managing Great Lakes water resources I have followed over the years.
I was born in L’Anse, Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Bay. Minus a short interval when my family lived in Manistique (on the shore of Lake Michigan, but I was too young to remember this detour), I have never lived more than a mile from the shore of the big lake. I have spent enough time boating to not be a total land lubber, but I am one of those folks who would rather enjoy the lake from the shoreline. Not being a natural born sailor has not prevented me from being enthralled with tales of those who are. My degrees in Geography/Earth Science provided me with enough information about the Great Lakes (both the physical and sociological histories) to deepen my appreciation for what we call the Crown Jewel freshwater system of North America, if not of the whole planet.
The most authentic sailor I have had the pleasure of knowing would be former Ontonagon Area Schools math teacher and principal Tom Hartzell. When my son was quite young, we ventured down to the marina to look at the boats and Captain Tom invited us to join him aboard his sailboat for a cup of coffee and a pop. When Daniel asked him if he had ever been sailing in a storm on the lake, Tom smiled and said, “Not on purpose.” He related a time when he was leaning back watching the clouds roll by, oblivious to anything but the sun, wind, and water. Tom said he was caught totally by surprise when his boat was overtaken by a violent squall that snuck up on him from behind. “It was a little scary until I got the sails winched down,” Tom told us, “but I really didn’t get ‘scared’ until I had made port and began thinking about all the bad things that didn’t happen. Maybe I should have installed a rearview mirror.”
Tom’s love of the lake wasn’t confined to the sailing season. The snow generated by the cold Canadian winds picking up moisture and dumping it on the highlands of Upper Michigan provide the natural resource for another one of Tom’s great pleasures: skiing. It was Tom’s idea to start taking our Ontonagon Area Schools JH students on a yearly ski trip to the Porkies (an event that carries on to this day). Another story he told me concerned one of his adventures cross country skiing out on icy Lake Superior.
It was one of those brutally cold winters when Lake Superior managed to freeze over completely. Tom began wondering if it would be possible to ski across the entire lake, but he rightly reasoned that the big lake would not remain completely frozen over very long once the next big snowstorm hit. He decided to venture out from the shore across the road from his home just to see how thick the ice was. Tom related the following story: “I started out cautiously because I couldn’t really tell how thick the ice was. I would test it here and there with the tip of my ski pole, but it was obviously very solid near the shore. As I ventured farther out, I began testing less frequently and pretty soon, I got lost in the joy of skimming along the ice. After a long interval of sliding along the icy surface, I stopped and prodded the ice again. Too my surprize, the tip of the ski pole made a hole and a little fountain of water spurted out when it was removed. Slowly looking over my shoulder, I realized how far out I was; I could barely see the shoreline behind me. After carefully turning around to face back the way I had come, I started back slowly. I shuffled my feet with a skating motion to get moving because I really didn’t want to make any more holes. It took a long time before I was brave enough to test the ice again and it was a great relief to not see my pole make another hole. The phrase, ‘Tom, what were you thinking?’ kept running through my head until I was back on shore.” Let me just say this episode never damped Tom’s enthusiasm for skiing (on land) or sailing on the lake. He never mentioned if he ventured out on to the lake ice on skis again.
In the article that John Fischer had told me to read, I found reference to a book by Peter Annin entitled The Great Lake Water Wars (Island Press – 2006). Having found a copy in the Ontonagon Township Library, reading the Prologue stimulated my own memory files about living in the Great Lakes region. How many of us living in the Great Lakes Basin stop to think about the vast water resources contained in our corner of the world?
Peter Annin’s summary in the Prologue is a good place to start: “Today, I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see a unique, fragile, cold-water ecosystem. I see the largest surface area of delicious freshwater in the world. I see a lake so deep (more than 1,300 feet) that her steepest underwater canyon is the lowest spot on the North American continent. I see a lake so large that she could swallow all four of the other Great Lakes and still have room to spare, I see the mother of all lakes, the headwaters of a great basin that holds one-fifth of all the fresh surface water on the planet, I see a five-lake ecosystem that contains enough water to cover the Lower 48 – every American acre south of the Canadian border – with 9.5 feet of crystal clear Great Lakes water. I see an ecosystem that quenches the thirst of billions of creatures and some forty million people in eight U.S. states and two Candian Provinces.”
Annin goes on to frame his reasons for writing Water Wars: “Today I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see a naive innocent, a voluptuous bounty on the verge of violation. I see millions of angry, parched people from far-flung venues who view ‘undeveloped water’ as a wasted opportunity. I see dryland farmers clamoring with sharp spigots, claiming they can’t feed the world without more irrigation. I see thousands of massive supertankers lining up on behalf of millions of thirsty Asians. I see endless Romanesque canals carrying water to manicured lawns in a burgeoning, unsustainable Sunbelt. I see anxious scientists who worry about the transformations that climate change could bring, I see Great Lakes Politicians destructively bickering among themselves, ultimately threatening the lakes they hope to save. I see urban voters – with no connection to land, water, or wildlife – who elect their dilettante peers to public office, affecting water policy everywhere…I see millions upon millions of Great Lakes residents who underestimate the struggle that awaits them. Today, when I stand on the shores of Lake Superior, I don’t see a lake. I see a sprawling deep blue battleground that stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, to Trois Rivieres, Quebec – and I wonder, who will win the war?”
The fluctuating levels of the Great Lakes have been documented back to the end of the last Ice Age. Since the first edition of Water Wars was released in 2006, we have seen both historic low and high water levels on Lake Superior in less than a decade. With the lake consuming more and more of the shoreline in 2020, it may be a little hard to envision any human intervention that could permanently harm such a massive body of water. That is what people living around the Aral Sea thought seventy years ago and if one hasn’t tossed all of their old atlases, take a moment to look at the Aral Sea we learned about in Geography class. Then do a search about conditions there today. The diversion of water from the two major rivers that used to fill the Aral Sea turned the surrounding land into valuable cropland. This diversion caused the first dominoes to fall in a cascade of environmental decline that decimated the Aral Sea and is quickly poisoning the new croplands with salts deposited by irrigation. Like Superior, the Aral Sea was once seen as a resource to be exploited and too large to harm by simply using the river water that flowed into it.
Annin points out that many see the Great Lakes as an endless resource. No doubt some would advocate using this vast reservoir of freshwater to cure the water ills plaguing areas of the Great Plains and Southwest. This is the same kind of thinking that destroyed the Aral Sea. The Great Lakes are NOT a vast reservoir waiting to be ‘used’. Annin calculates that only about 1 percent of the Great Lakes can be considered as ‘available’. The Great Lakes as a whole comprise a vast ecological system that supports the biological and industrial needs of the states and provinces that surround them. Any future attempts to divert Great Lakes water to other areas could be the first steps toward negatively altering this ecological system. Annin also doubts the amount of money needed to fund large scale diversions could be found at this point, but what about a future point when the western water woes become even more dire? There was a time when no one thought it would be economical to import water from the Colorado River system to Los Angeles.
When he published Water Wars in 2006, Annin hoped a comprehensive water management plan would become the guiding light. Like any political football, the discussion drags on as the various groups with a dog in the fight weigh in. Though I have not seen the updated version, I read he added new information about efforts to tweak the International Commission’s rules to accommodate areas just outside of the Lake Michigan watershed boundary. The idea goes like this: If Suburb A can take water out of Lake Michigan because it is within the watershed boundary, why can’t Suburb B which is right next to A, though just outside the divide? Why couldn’t Suburb A sell water it pumps from Lake Michigan to Suburb B?
Decisions like this could become the first dominos to fall and everyone knows what happens next . . . they will all fall. Tweaking one of the Commission’s rules would open the door for more diversion of Great Lake water. Consider the ‘dark store tax’ fight: the crazy idea big box stores use to lower their taxes. They claim their taxable value should be based on the value of the empty building and not the value of the business they are doing while in operation. The unintended consequences of implementing the ‘dark store tax’ has been loss of local revenue that supports libraries, animal shelters, fire departments, and other valuable community assets. The ‘we are next door to the water boundary’ arguments make me say, ”WHAAAT? It is the water equivalent of the ‘dark store tax’!” The rules drafted by the Commission are based on science and any legal mumbo jumbo used to find loopholes in these regulations put the Great Lakes on a slippery slope. Again, there would be dire consequences for many if diversions are allowed for the benefit of a few.
As I have quoted Peter Annin a great deal in this article, I will give him the last word, taken from the Epilog of Water Wars: “The time has come for the Great Lakes region to become a global leader in water conservation. In that regard it has a lot to learn from the more arid regions of the continent that were forced to embark on serious water restrictions decades ago. It’s time for the people of the Basin to lead by example and stop taking the region’s most important economic and ecological resource for granted. Conserving water because they want to – not because they have to – is the only way that the Great Lakes states and provinces can credibly claim their mantle as stewards of one of the most abundant freshwater ecosystems on the face of the earth.” To this, I can only add a hearty ‘Amen’!
Top Piece Video: Ah yes, a song about Troubled Waters!