Great Lakes water: Moving towards a culture of conservation
Globe and Mail - Information Supplement
Stretching from the northern tip of Lake Superior past Chicago, and east from Minnesota to the St. Lawrence River of Quebec, the Great Lakes account for 20 per cent of the Earth’s fresh surface water. Water that many of us take for granted.
“Canadians look around the Great Lakes basin and see so much water, but we don’t realize that much of it is not renewable,” says Tim Morris, water campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada. “People don’t know that only one per cent of the Great Lakes water is renewed each year through natural processes like rain and snow. The rest was a one-time gift from the last ice age when the glaciers melted.”
Not only are the Great Lakes a finite resource, but the pending realities of population growth, climate change and an increasing thirst for water diversion make it clear that water conservation by citizens, business and government can no longer be ignored.
“Canadians need to move from a myth of water abundance towards a culture of conservation,” says Mr. Morris.
“There’s a real need for aggressive water conservation measures right now.”
Nothing underscores the need for Great Lakes water conservation more than declining lake levels on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, known collectively as the “middle lakes.”
“In 1999, water levels dropped dramatically in the middle lakes, and it has been stuck there ever since,” says Bill Bialkowski, an engineer and volunteer director with the nonprofit Georgian Bay Association (GBA). “Since 2003, we have been losing three centimetres a year due to ongoing erosion in the upper St. Clair River. That is equivalent to removing 2.5 billion gallons of water every day. It is time our governments took the necessary action to stop this diversion.”
To compound matters, Environment Canada predicts that climate change will lower Michigan/Huron levels by another 1 to 1.5 metres by 2050, due to loss of ice cover and warmer temperatures.
McMaster University biology professor Dr. Pat Chow-Fraser is also concerned about the impacts of drought on wetlands.
“At the current sustained low water levels on Georgian Bay, many wetlands have not only dried up, but have converted to grass meadows. This has resulted in significant aquatic habitat loss as wetlands are needed by 80 per cent of Great Lakes fish for spawning and nursery habitat.”
Wetlands found on glacial silt deposits among Georgian Bay’s 30,000 islands are particularly vulnerable. GBA Foundation’s advisor, Mary Muter, says, “The aquatic life forced out of eastern and northern Georgian Bay wetlands cannot survive on adjacent steep granite shorelines. And if fish cannot find their natural spawning areas, they just do not spawn.
About 70 per cent of wetlands on Lakes Erie and Ontario have been lost forever, due to pollution and or development infilling. We need to protect what good wetlands we have left.”
Concerns that mass water diversions, by regions outside the Great Lakes, could further drain the lakes have spurred efforts to strengthen basin-wide regulations.
In December 2005, Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states signed a good faith agreement to prevent the diversion of lake water to thirsty regions outside the basin. A separate, legally binding agreement was also signed by those states, but still has to be passed by each state’s Congress as well as at the federal level. So far, only Minnesota has achieved congressional approval.
Concerns persist that large water diversions are still possible because the agreements still permit water transfers from one Great Lakes watershed to another. For example, London, Ontario, is interested in expanding an existing diversion of water from Lake Huron to Lake Erie. Waterloo, Ontario, has suggested it may also need to draw its future municipal water from Lake Huron, diverting it into Lake Erie. While these diversions are not to regions outside the Great Lakes basin, impacts on the level of the middle lakes would be just as damaging.
Glen Pleasance, chair of the Water Efficiency Committee for the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, says, “Aggressive, full-scale water conservation programs have the potential to render diversions unnecessary. There are untapped opportunities to conserve reat Lakes water, which can reduce spending, energy use, and CO2 emissions at the same time.”
The first step towards a culture of conservation begins in every home and office across the basin. By using less potable water through water-efficient toilets, showerheads and appliances, as well as rethinking how we garden, we can leave more of the Great Lakes’ water right where it belongs.