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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Great Lakes Water

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: If you live in a place where fresh water supplies are limited, you might think about importing water from places where it's plentiful. For example, some folks see the Great Lakes as huge reservoirs that could help slake the thirst of the drier parts of the world. And there are rising commercial and political pressures to do just that. But commentator Mike VanBuren says water from the majestic inland seas ought to stay right where it is.

VANBUREN: When I was a boy, my grandmother sent me a postcard from Arizona. It was covered with pictures of desert plants and animals. There were cacti, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes, each well adapted to the harsh climate. My grandmother was well adapted, too, having lived in Phoenix for many years. But her needs were different from the coyotes and roadrunners that populated the countryside. They'd learned to get by on less. She depended on generous supplies of clean, fresh water.

The Southwest, you see, is a thirsty place. The sun is bright and hot and the land is dry. It's enough to send a Gila monster off for a tall glass of cold sarsaparilla, and it's made many misguided public servants cast greedy eyes on the Great Lakes. The reasons are simple. Water is critical to life and to many social and economic activities. In some areas, such as Arizona, water is in short supply. The Great Lakes Basin contains about 20 percent of the fresh water on the surface of the Earth. Why not just redistribute it so everyone has enough?

Some profiteers--and politicians with dry tongues--like this idea. But I don't. Water is already being pumped in and out of the Great Lakes on a relatively small scale. Thankfully, no major diversions are currently planned. But some public officials and environmental leaders say it's just a matter of time. The population is expanding in many parts of the country where water is scarce. Census results show that some of the fastest-growing states--Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas--are also among those most in need of water. The Census also shows that those states will gain seats in Congress while the Great Lakes region loses seats. That means it could be harder to win a Congressional vote to restrict the sale of Great Lakes water.

Siphoning lake water makes perfect sense to those who don't know or care about ecosystems. But scientists say such activity could harm plants and animals. It could upset the balance of nature, lower groundwater levels, reduce water quality, and even change the climate. And what happens if you have to shut the spigot off for some reason? Who's going to tell the folks in Sun City that the well is dry?

My home state of Michigan is almost entirely within the Great Lakes Basin. We have everything to lose and very little to gain if water is taken. Our economy is tied to shipping, fishing, agriculture, recreation, and tourism. These activities depend on the Great Lakes being healthy and vibrant. That's why we all need to conserve water and develop strong policies to prevent raids on the resource. Now, I love Arizona, and I'm pleased my grandmother could live there. But if she wanted to drink from the Great Lakes, she probably should have moved back to Michigan.

CURWOOD: Mike VanBuren is a writer who lives near Richland, Michigan. He comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

(Music up and under)



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