The Future of Water in the Great Lakes Basin: It’s Up To Us

Water is all around us. It falls from the sky, lands on the ground, and seeps into tiny crevices and cracks, filling air pockets in the soil as it travels down, absorbing in the roots of trees and other plants as it travels down to maintain underground springs.

Water travels down, until underground springs bubble up. Until the roots of plants absorb their share and circulate the water up to their leaves. Until the dry air absorbs water from the plants’ leaves and takes the water up into the atmosphere. Until the atmosphere becomes water logged and releases the excess moisture and rain falls on the earth.

The cycle begins again.

Water is all around us. Living on the shore of the largest freshwater lake in the world gives a sense of security in the abundance of water in our ecosystem. Others aren’t so lucky.

In many parts of the world, water is a scarce resource. Peter Annin writes in his book Great Lake Water Wars, that “more than a billion people—one –sixth of the world’s population—do not have access to clean drinking water, and 2.1 million people die annually because of unsafe drinking-water conditions. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to face water shortages—the vast majority of them in the developing world,” (Annin, 3). Annin goes on to write, “as the world’s population has tripled, water use has increased six-fold,” (Annin, 3).

Remarkably, water scarcity in a region isn’t always indicated by the climate, but is often more dependent on the amount of money available to pay for water being diverted to the area. Las Vegas is a good case in point. Peter Annin writes that “Americans have some of the highest per capita water use in the world, and Las Vegas residents use more than twice as much as the average American,” (Annin, 9). Las Vegas gets its water from Lake Mead—a man-made reservoir supplied by a diversion of the Colorado River. The Colorado River has been so taxed by diversions that it no longer reaches the Gulf of California.

Out of economic desperation the governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan shrunk the fourth largest body of water in the world, the Aral Sea, to one quarter of its size in an attempt to grow cotton in the desert. In the U.S., the arid Great Plains are irrigated with water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge underground reservoir of water that stretches from South Dakota to the pan handle of Texas. Water levels in the Aquifer have diminished by over 150 feet in some places. What will happen when that reservoir is depleted? Where will water be diverted from?

Water scarcity is also a function of poor land management causing ineffective water cycles. An effective water cycle is dependent on healthy soil. Healthy soil is alive with millions of microorganisms that provide nutrients for plants as well as the bugs and worms which aerate the soil. Aerated soil allows water to be retained in it. In an ineffective water cycle the air, water, and life has been squeezed and/or starved out of the soil, making the area more susceptible to flooding and drought. Soil needs a diverse array of nutrients to feed the life which aerate the soil. Soil that has barren or non-diverse plant coverage resulting from deforestation, mining, or monoculture farming provides a very poor diet for the life of the soil. The use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers kill the life of the soil. Unhealthy soil doesn’t retain water, which increases the need for irrigating agricultural fields and lawns, putting pressure on our water sources.

On top of all of that there’s climate change. Studies indicate that the Great Lakes Region will most likely see higher temperatures causing greater evaporation of surface waters, leading to decreased lake levels. Decreased lake levels could have a major economic effect in the region, hampering the $3 billion Great Lakes shipping industry and the multibillion dollar tourism industry.

In light of this information, how secure should we feel in our abundance? What can we learn from the Aral Sea so that fifty years from now Duluth isn’t thirty miles from the shores of Lake Superior? What can we do now to relieve the pressure that will be put on this resource in the coming years not only from populations in the Great Lakes Basin, but populations outside of The Basin that will experience environmental and economic crises due to shortages of water?

There are so many ways we can conserve water. Just being aware and doing little things like taking shorter showers helps. So does voting with your consumer dollars and buying a water-conserving model of a washing machine, dishwasher, and/or toilet. You can collect rainwater from you roof in a rainbarrel and use that to water your garden or lawn. You can plant native plants in your yard that are adapted to the local region and don’t require much watering. Toby Hemenway, in his excellent book Gaia’s Garden tells you how to build a wetland oasis with ponds and aquatic plants that will naturally filter and return to the water cycle, water that goes down the drain from your sinks, showers, and washing machines (greywater).

Better land management can also help us conserve water. We need to remember that healthy soil is alive with millions of beneficial microorganisms that allow soil to retain water. Pesticides poison and kill those populations of microorganisms. Synthetic fertilizers add excessive amounts of salt to the soil, creating an inhospitable environment for microorganisms. Dead soils don’t hold water, necessitating massive irrigation works, costing billions of dollars and depleting our sources of water. We need environmental policies that are capable of bringing the soil back to life. We need environmental policies that encourage sustainable forestry and agriculture. It isin our environmental as well as economic interest.

The native Anishinabe people that lived along Lake Superior’s shores thousands of years before European Settlers arrived had an understanding of the importance of balance and moderation in their world. Community members who acted out of their own self-interest, disregarding the balance of nature, were said to be fair prey for the Weendigo. The Weendigo had an insatiable and constant hunger for human flesh. The more flesh the Weendigo ate, the bigger it got and the more hungry it became.

Basil Johnston, author of The Manitous writes that, “If all men and women lived in moderation, the Weendigo and his brothers and sisters would starve and die out,” (Johnston, 223). Today we can draw parallels to this story of the Weendigo from our modern society that eats up resources with little restraint. The more resources consumed, the more we grow, and the more resources we hunger for in order to maintain our modern world. If we, as a species, don’t want to be consumed by ourselves, we need to work now to ensure nature’s cycles will keep beginning again. In the meantime we are, as a species, slowly devouring ourselves; consuming our own lifeblood.

Water is all around us. Living on the shore of the largest freshwater lake in the world gives a false sense of security in the abundance of water in our ecosystem. Somehow we must restore the balance. We must find moderation. We must starve the Weendigos.

Katie Schmitz

Organic Gardening Specialist

Safe Lawn and Garden Campaign


%d bloggers like this: