Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman (Los Angeles Valley College)
Published on H-Water (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe (Monte Vista Water District; Claremont Graduate University)
Great Urgency in the Great Lakes Region
Mention “water wars” and the usual response is a comment about the arid West where water is always at a premium and there never is enough of it. Controversies over riparian versus prior appropriation water laws, Los Angeles taking water from Owens Valley and San Francisco building Hetch Hetchy Dam, San Diego dealing and wheeling Colorado River water from Imperial Valley, restoration of the Salton Sea--such issues date back more than a century and still are the subject of litigation and resentment. So it comes as a bit of a surprise for historians who have focused on Western water disputes to find that people are fighting over the Great Lakes.
If the Western water wars are the stuff of history, then the Great Lakes water wars are the starting point for a twenty-first-century conflict. Peter Annin, associate director of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, begins his book with a worst-case scenario, the sad fate of the Aral Sea. Located in Central Asia, bounded by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea is an environmental disaster. Since 1960 the sea has lost 90 percent of its volume and 75 percent of its surface area. The Soviet Union deprived the sea of its tributaries, diverting the water to agricultural production, especially cotton. As the water level dropped, so did the livelihoods of fishermen. Water loss in the sea affected the region’s climate, resulting in hotter summers and colder winters. All this because of shortsighted water policies. For environmentalists, the Aral Sea became the poster child that should warn Great Lakes policymakers that history can repeat itself.
No less than eight states and two provinces are involved in approving a compact, the Annex Implementing Agreements. This compact consists of two documents, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, involving both U.S. states and Canadian provinces, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. To make these agreements work, all legislatures of states adjoining the lakes and the U.S. Congress would have to adopt it. Unfortunately, each state has its own view on such issues as water diversions, consumption of water within state boundaries, and concern that the federal government would mandate unacceptable regulations. On the other side of the border, Ottawa and Quebec provinces have their own concerns. To add to the complications, agreements and understandings under one state administration may (and have) change when another one takes office. What Republicans may do, Democrats may see other ways in dealing with water issues. In effect, trying to get eight states and two provinces to act in unity on the Great Lakes water issues is like herding cats.
When the Compact agreements were released on December 13, 2005, the ceremony that took place met with little public excitement. Five governors sent substitutes, avoiding the event since at that time the agreements were still non-binding. “Maybe more governors and premiers would show up for the final Compact’s signing ceremony,” observes Annin, “assuming, of course, that they ever provided themselves with such an opportunity” (p. 239).
Annin concedes that securing protection for Great Lakes water “will always be a work in progress” (p. 272). At the time Annin finished the book, a binding agreement was yet to be achieved. In a brief epilogue, Annin offers cautious optimism as people are becoming more aware of the need for water conservation. Chicago, a notorious water waster, has installed residential water meters (Los Angeles did this a century ago). All in all, the Great Lakes water issue is a complicated one, but Annin succeeds remarkably well in providing a status report for the general reader that has the virtue of being well researched and written. The significance of the problem calls for an audience that includes people who do not live in the Great Lakes region. This story has no ending, so Annin offers www.greatlakeswaterwars.com as a way of keeping up to date on the progress of the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact through the state and provincial legislatures. Stay tuned.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-water.
Abraham Hoffman. Review of Annin, Peter, The Great Lakes Water Wars.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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