Undercurrents: beneath the obvious

October 26, 2007

States eye lakes water management

From the Post-Tribune:

Great Lakes water levels are near historic lows. And with droughts in the Southeast and Southwest, the pressure to turn to the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water is growing.

The Georgian Bay Association released new figures in August indicating that an extra 2.5 billion gallons of water are being drained from the lakes every day. It takes about 99 years for water in Lake Michigan to replenish itself.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. and Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson hinted earlier this month that he’d be willing to divert Great Lakes water when he said “states like Wisconsin are awash in water.” He later partially withdrew that statement.

“On a longer-term basis, among the issues are, we’ve been losing population in the Midwest to the West and Southwest, which means we’ve been losing seats in virtually every election. The concern is that in the future, we’d not be able to defend our territory in Congress,” said Gary environmental activist Lee Botts.


April 13, 2007

Debate to heat up over North American water trade

From Canada’s National Post:

Canadian water is on the table at trilateral talks between politicians, businessmen and academics from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, …

A series of closed-door conferences for the North American Future 2025 Project will include the discussion of “water transfers” and diversions, according to the outline for the project, a trilateral effort to draft a “blueprint” on economic integration for the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

The project was launched by the three governments in March 2006 to help guide the ongoing Security and Prosperity Partnership, a wide-ranging effort to further integrate the countries’ practices on everything from environmental rules to security protocols and border controls.

“It’s no secret that the U.S. is going to need water. … It’s no secret that Canada is going to have an overabundance of water. At the end of the day, there may have to be arrangements,” said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the project, which is spearheaded by the the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a powerful Washington think-tank, in partnership with the Conference Board of Canada and CIDE, a Mexican policy institute.

Pressure on Canada from the U.S. will be intense, according to the UN report, which warns drought may cut a key Texas aquifer that supplies water for two million people by 40%, and decimate the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies eight U.S. states.

Maude Barlow national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, which obtained the outline, said it “shows the American government and its think-tanks … see Canada’s water as a North American resource, not Canada’s.”

Key quotes from the outline (emphasis mine):

  • North America, and particularly the United States and Mexico, will experience water scarcity as a result of arid climates coupled with growing populations and increased water consumption.
  • Canada possesses about 20 percent of the earth’s fresh water. … Because water availability, quality, and allocation are likely to undergo profound changes between 2006 and 2025, policymakers will benefit from a more proactive approach to exploring different creative solutions beyond the current transboundary water management agreements that the United States has reached with both Mexico and Canada.
  • One such option could be regional agreements … on issues such as water consumption, water transfers, artificial diversions of fresh water, water conservation technologies for agricultural irrigation, and urban consumption.
  • The three nations will have to overcome the bureaucratic challenges posed by their different political systems and legal regimes, particularly if the overriding future goal of North America is to achieve joint optimum utilization of the available water

Read the outline here: North American Future 2025 Project (pdf)

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April 11, 2007

Kazakhs get loan to save Aral Sea

Filed under: Aral Sea,Water Diversion,Water Wars — nemo @ 7:21 pm

From the BBC Asia-Pacific:

The Kazakhstan government has secured a multi-million dollar loan from the World Bank to help save the Aral Sea.

The money will be used to implement the second stage of a project aimed at saving the northern part of the sea.

The United Nations has said the disappearance of the Aral is the worst man-made environmental disaster.

But this new project could mean that at least part of the Aral – once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water – will be saved.

It is an ambitious project aimed at reversing one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

See a summary of the Aral Sea on the left sidebar.

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February 25, 2007

Fiercer water wars seen for the West — and coming to the Great Lakes

Filed under: Great Lakes Issues,Water Wars — nemo @ 8:49 am

The Rocky Mountain News summarizes a new study that highlights the water problems facing western states in the not to distant future.

The Colorado River Basin covers portions of seven Western states. The river has an average annual flow of 15 million acre- feet and supports tens of millions of Americans.

As the population boom continues, Western water wars will grow fiercer, water costs will rise and more agricultural water will be diverted to urban use, the report notes. Now, about 80 percent of Western water is used for crop production.

But “the availability of agricultural water is finite,” and all signs point to a future “in which the potential for conflict among existing and prospective new users will prove endemic,” the report says.

“The Colorado River has been called the hardest-working river, but how much more work can it be asked to do?” said study co-author Kelly Redmond, a climatologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

“The issue of limitations has to be confronted eventually, and it’s just a question of which generation is going to take it on,” Redmond said.

“Down the road, we’ll either decide that the population cannot continue to grow inexorably, or we will have to go to greater and greater lengths to find (other sources of) water and move it to where the people are.

The U.S. has not stemmed the tide of illegal immigration — is it reasonable to assume it can stem the tide of population shifts? Western states are left with their only other alternative — use technology to move water to the people.

Think it can’t be done? Think again — the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) can pump 2.1 billion gallons of oil daily (the equivalent of the current Chicago water diversion from Lake Michigan) from Prudhoe Bay to the Gulf of Alaska at Valdez — that’s 800 miles. Chicago to Denver is 900 miles. Technologically, water is way easier to pipe than oil; for one thing there’s no need to worry about spills.

The study published by the National Research Council is available online: Colorado River Basin Water Management: Evaluating and Adjusting to Hydroclimatic Variability.

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February 9, 2007

Another front in the water wars breaking out across the Northern Plains

Another front in the water wars breaking out across the Northern Plains:

As the worst dry spell since the 1930s shows no signs of abating, many states are squabbling with each other and federal officials.

Nebraska and Kansas are wrangling for control of irrigation water from the Republican River. South Dakota has demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers stop drawing down reservoirs in the state because it is hurting recreational fishing. Barge companies along the Missouri River in Iowa are demanding the Corps release more water so their vessels can operate.

And Wyoming and Montana are fighting two more water battles in the Tongue and Powder river basins. Montana officials claim Wyoming is diverting too much water from the rivers before they cross the state line, sparking a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit.

Check out the Drought Monitor for more information about the drought conditions in the northern plains.

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January 14, 2007

U.S. Drought Monitor update for January 2007

As residents of the Great Lakes Basin we forget that the rest of the country isn’t as fortunate to have the water resources as we do. No single definition of drought works for all circumstances, so people rely on drought indices to detect and measure droughts.

The Drought Monitor is a synthesis of multiple indices, outlooks and news accounts, that represents a consensus of federal and academic scientists.


Here’s the 12-week drought Map of the United States. To those who think that drought is only a problem faced on the other side of the world, take a hard look at all the red areas — exceptional drought conditions.

As the population continues to move south and west so will the political power base shift in Washington. The basin will come under increased pressure to relieve the water woes of these areas. The time to enact regional water use agreements is now while the basin’s political representation remains at its current levels. Any delay will only weaken the already weak political situation.

To many, water is looked on as a hardship. We are not impervious to its affects.

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January 6, 2007

Catawba basin water war is glimpse of future

Filed under: Great Lakes Compact,Water Diversion,Water Wars — nemo @ 9:51 am

Political battles over water aren’t unique to the Great Lakes region. North Carolina is having its own little water war and the Charlotte Observer is covering it. What makes this article special is the series of questions it asks:

The issue hasn’t made a big ripple in Charlotte. But get outside of the Great State (of Mecklenburg, that is), and you’ll find people steamed over a proposal from two Cabarrus County cities to take water from the Catawba River and, when done, send it to another river basin.

The technical term for what Concord and Kannapolis want is an interbasin transfer — or IBT — of up to 26 million gallons a day from the Catawba basin and 10 million from the Yadkin. City, town and county governments all along the Catawba and even the S.C. attorney general are saying they’ll sue if North Carolina grants the IBT.

The key problem is this: Most places like growth. But growth requires water, and it isn’t unlimited. So who gets it? The places sitting near good water supplies? Or should natural resources be treated as if they’re held in common by all, and shared?

After all, the Catawba, the Yadkin and even the humblest creek are all “waters of the state” — a publicly held resource.

So is it right to tell Concord and Kannapolis, “We’re keeping our water on our side of the ridge, so I guess you can’t grow”?

How smart is it, for a metro region that essentially functions as one economy, to let a couple of major municipalities dry up, literally and economically? A regional economy isn’t a game of you-lose-we-win. It’s an interconnected organism in which the whole suffers when a part suffers. We’re all in this together.

But on the other hand, if Mother Nature says no, how smart is it to ignore that? Facing up to the truth — that natural resources have limits — is important if humans are going to continue to occupy this planet.

The answers to these same questions are playing out in Ohio as the Ohio Senate debated the Great Lakes Compact last December and it will play out in every Great Lake State and Province. Will any State deny growth simply because that growth is occurring outside the basin? Chicago didn’t and Wisconsin would like to follow Chicago’s lead. The Ohio Senate debate centered on this question: “Why should Ohio give up its sovereign power to control the use of Lake Erie water within Ohio?”.

What governmental authority will go along with the “common good” if it results in limited economic (tax base) growth?

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December 10, 2006

Lake Victoria (2nd largest lake behind Superior) is dropping fast

Filed under: Aral Sea,Great Lakes News,Water Wars — nemo @ 11:32 pm

Many news sites including SE Florida’s Herald Tribune have carried this story about the dramatic reduction in lake levels in Lake Victoria:

At 27,000 square miles, the size of Ireland, Victoria is the greatest of Africa’s Great Lakes — the biggest freshwater body after Lake Superior. And it has dropped fast, at least six feet in the past three years, and by as much as a half-inch a day this year before November rains stabilized things.

The outflow through two hydroelectric dams at Jinja is part of the problem — a tiny part, says the Uganda government, or half the problem, say environmentalists. But much of what is happening to Victoria and other lakes across the heart of Africa is attributable to years of drought and rising temperatures, conditions that starve the lakes of inflowing water and evaporate more of the water they have.

And the African map abounds with other, less startling examples, from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, getting half the inflow it once did, to the great Lake Tanganyika south of here, whose level dropped over five feet in five years.

Each troubled lake is a complex story.

There are 30 million people living in the Lake Victoria basin, about the same that live in the Great Lakes basin (33 million). Like our Great Lakes basin, Lake Victoria is a vital source — of livelihoods and food, of water, of transportation, of electric power.

Read the whole story for an examination of causes. You’ll find the usual ones in the list: hydroelectric dams, irrigation, and water diversions. There’s also climate change discussed for about a third of the article and that’s too bad. Climate change is too often used as an excuse for not taking action; i.e., it’s the weather, we can’t do anything about that, let’s just watch the lake dry up. It would be too bad if local initiatives to stem the drastic water loss were delayed.

Think globally but act locally!

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