Chapter 14

Who Will Win the War? (excerpt)

WATER IS THE FOUNDATION of life. It is a key driver of ecosystems and economic development. From remote wetlands to Wall Street, water availability is often the determining factor between prosperity and deprivation. Citizens in the Great Lakes Basin—who have traditionally taken water for granted—learned that lesson late, but just as bitterly as anywhere else. Since the midtwentieth century, water quality and the introduction of exotic species have been the chief ecological concerns in the Great Lakes Basin. But in recent years water quantity has emerged as an important environmental worry as well. Prior chapters in this book have shown that the Great Lakes region is blessed with abundant water resources, but cursed by an era of water conflict. That era began in 1900 with the reversal of the Chicago River, and it reached a new and contentious stage as the twentieth century came to a close.

Most experts believe that water conflict has become a permanent fixture of life in the Great Lakes region. Polluted tributaries that once caught fire now host water battles resembling those of drier climes. Along the southern rim of the Great Lakes Basin, water skirmishes will be a regular feature of the future—and that will be particularly true in places like the southwest shore of Lake Michigan where the edge of the Basin lies so close to the water’s edge. What’s more, the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes could dwarf the impacts of human water withdrawals, raising regional water tensions to unprecedented heights. That people are fighting over water in one of the wettest regions on earth is an ironic sign of just how precious potable freshwater has become.

“If the Great Lakes are going through this struggle, imagine what more arid parts of the world are going through,” says Cameron Davis, executive director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago. “Nobody’s immune from this tension. The entire world is struggling with it.”

Are the Great Lakes ready for their acrimonious water future? ...