Saturday, October 13, 2007

Who do we talk to about getting Lake Superior back?

So apparently Lake Superior is a meter below it's annual average this year, according to this CBC Radio piece. (WMV link. Start listening about 15:30.) Given that we're talking about the largest source of freshwater in the world, that's enough water, the piece says, to keep Canada slaked for a decade. And it's going away.

Have I mentioned there's a really dumb idea out there to send water from the Great Lakes to the American Southwest? Any chance I'll be able to win my ecology back at the blackjack tables in Vegas?

The suspects for this recent drop in water levels are more diverse than usual -- global warming for sure, but it's also being blamed on overzealous dredging in the St. Clair River, apparently. Basically, somebody deepened a channel between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and now apparently all the lakes from Detroit on up are draining much faster than previous.

Which wouldn't be a good thing at the best of times, but when you combine drier summers and warmer winters it means the rivers which feed Lake Superior have dwindled, too. So water's rushing out and not being replaced quickly enough.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that Bill Richardson may be right on the war, but sending water from the Great Lakes south so that people in Las Vegas can have larger pools is insanity. And my other favourite Democratic governor of a border state agrees.

We need to start thinking about different ways of doing things with water, just like we need to start thinking about different ways of using energy. And a big one is going to be "stop creating permanent settlements in a desert, people!" Barring that, if America isn't smart enough to put together solar-thermal power and seawater desalination, I don't see why the Northeast should be dried out for a Southwest that's already a desert.

Fred Pearce did a really, really good
book about the global water problems we're facing, but one of the most interesting bits in it was the (apparently not new) concept of "virtual water", where economists talk about the amount of water embodied in, say, a T-shirt made from cotton in Egypt or Russia or whatever. Basically, some countries are massive water exporters depending on the products they sell, while others are massive water importers. The "water" can be bound up in finished products, or simple crops like tomatoes or alfalfa.

It would be interesting to look at something like ethanol or tar sands oil and see the amount of virtual water Canada exports to the US as oil.


Charles J said...

Great post.

I had the pleasure of spending a week in Northern Ontario this summer and I did a lot of swimming in Superior. It is awesome -- superior to all other lakes without a doubt.

The scary part is that the lake was warmer this year than it has been for years. This is related to the water level and although it made swimming much better it's frightening to think that such an incredible natural wonder might be feeling the pinch from human development.

Anyway, just some random thoughts. Props to you for drawing attention to a big issue. Superior rules.

Glenn Hubbers said...

My understanding is that it takes 4-5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil processed from the oil sands. So you can do the math from there.
I'm thinking that Ed Stelmach may want to consider getting into the casino game, since we are creating our own desert in Alberta. Perhaps Fort McMurray can be redubbed, Vegas-North.

NonyNony said...

And a big one is going to be "stop creating permanent settlements in a desert, people!"

Hey now, you're talking about stepping on American sovreignity here. You know, our right to do whatever stupid thing we think we should be able to do just because we can!

Seriously, though - the American Southwest sits far closer to the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico than it does to any of the Great Lakes. The American Southwest also has an overabundance of sunlight. Solar powered desalination plants should be a no-brainer for watering the desert - yet somehow the idea of piping water in from the Great Lakes makes more 'sense'. I swear, I don't understand people sometimes.

Closet Liberal said...

John, on this we may be masters of our own demise (or however that goes).

Waterloo Region (in Ontario for the non-locals) has been formulating a long term water use plan to deal with local growth. Part of that plan involves building a pipeline to Lake Erie to import water for the regions needs. Local residents are upset about that plan......

They're upset because Lake Erie is dirty, and they rather build the pipeline to Lake Huron.

How does that factor in? Waterloo Region is part of the Lake Erie watershed. In theory, much of the water piped up would be returned to the Grand River thus making its way back to the lake. Lake Huron is out of our watershed.

If we build a pipeline to lake Huron, and ignore the watershed, we are setting up a precedent for anyone else to do it too.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the Lake Huron option ideally won't be allowed, because the new Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement (an agreement between ON, QC and the 8 Great Lakes states which came from the Great Lakes Charter Annex of 2001) won't allow intra-basin transfers. It also won't allow inter-basin transfers (i.e., to the American southwest/midwest or anywhere else) without agreement of all ten jurisdictions and federal governments. We're still waiting on other jurisdictions to enact legislation to implement the Agreement, though, after which it can be ratified by the U.S. government - and that'll be the big stumbling block.