Great Lakes Water Conflict
Jason Gosse
Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.


The Great Lakes have always been a symbol for the states and provinces that border them. The lakes hold one-fifth of the world's freshwater, and could submerge an area the size of the United States in more than nine feet of water. The lakes are the key source of freshwater for most of the people who live in the Great Lakes Basin. Although these lakes have been polluted in the past, they provide habitat for a large number of wildlife species. The lakes make up one of the main transportation routes for moving materials through the lakes to the rest of the world.

The Great Lakes Basin


Water Use in the Basin

All of the communities within the Great Lakes Basin use the Great Lakes for their daily use. These communities either take water directly out of the Great Lakes, take water from rivers that flow into the lakes, or take water out of aquifers that are replenished by the Great Lakes or the waterways that flow into them. Once this water is taken out and used as the public water supply, it is treated and sent back into the lakes. Communities are not required to replenish the water they take, because it is argued that the amount of water used in comparison to the water in the lakes is quite small. The largest city that uses water and does not return it to the lakes is Chicago. With the use of about 2.4 billion gallons a day, Chicago sends its treated water into the Mississippi River watershed.

Attempted Diversions

The Southwestern United States has recently been looking for more water to use for farmland and for municipalities. This area is growing at a fast rate and will need solutions to increase the amount of water they receive. In the 1950’s there was an attempt to take some water from the Great Lakes for use in the Southwest. The Great Recycling and Northern Development project, known as GRAND, also wanted to reverse the flow of some Canadian rivers to take water from James Bay, which would be isolated from Hudson Bay to keep out salt water, and transport it into Lake Huron. The whole matter was far too complex and costly for anyone to carry out.

In the 1980’s there was a proposal to withdraw water from the Great Lakes to recharge the Ogallala aquifer that supplies water to the Great Plains states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to allow this project to proceed.

More recently in 1998 a company named Nova Group wanted to make a bulk water transfer from the Great Lakes and sell it to the Asian market. “On March 31, 1998 the Environment Ministry issued a five year water-taking permit to a private company, the Nova Group of Sault Ste. Marie, allowing withdrawal by tanker of up to 600 billion liters a year of Lake Superior water.”(3) This proposal for the use of water stimulated a debate over the use of Great Lakes water, and caused many people to wonder whether new laws should be passed to protect the lakes from this type of water diversion.

Another issue with use of Great Lakes water stems from the building of a Nestlé/Perrier water bottling plant in Stanwood, Michigan, 50 miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The plant does not withdraw directly from the lake, but an aquifer that feeds the Muskegon River, which flows into Lake Michigan. “Ice Mountain has been permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw up to 400 gallons a minute since May, 2002, even though Judge Root said the state had no standard to issue the permit.”(4) The judge shut down the Ice Mountain bottling plant in 2003.

Scientists have recently found that deep wells drilled near the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan are reversing the flow of the lake. As these wells are being pumped, water from Lake Michigan is recharging the aquifers that are within the Great Lakes Basin. This is making the lake flow towards the southwestern side of the lake. “Scientists admit that they do not fully understand the effects of this on fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources. But they maintain that, because the Great Lakes hold more than six quadrillion gallons of water, the 10 million gallon per day backflow they discovered is, by itself, insignificant.”(5) These recent findings may have some impact on Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle’s decision for Great Lakes water to be sent to Waukesha County, which lies outside of the Great Lakes Basin.

Great Lakes Population Density



Low Water Levels and Shipping

The lakes serve as transport routes for large ocean-going vessels into the interior of North America. The lakes are crucial to the industries that rely on them for shipping raw materials and finished goods within the Great Lakes region, and throughout the world. In recent years, the lakes' water levels have been declining, affecting all of the industries that rely on them for the sole means of transportation. According to an article in the September 2002 National Geographic magazine, ”For every inch of ship’s draft clearance lost to low water in the shallower channels, such as the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Michigan-Huron, a carrier must reduce his cargo by as much as 270 tons or risk the danger of running aground.”(7) Smaller cargo loads results in a large decline in shipping profits. Water levels also have a great effect on the harbors where ships have to dock to be loaded with goods. Low water levels means that these harbors must be dredged more often, creating another economic setback in the shipping industry.


The Future of the Great Lakes

When people in the past have sought Great Lakes water, the requests were usually turned down. As the need for water throughout the world grows, people will look to this large supply of freshwater to fill their needs. The withdrawal of Great Lakes water is already being questioned for irreversible effects on the lakes, and any proposed use come under much public scrutiny. It seems that there is not currently a willingness to send the water too far from the lakes, but there needs to be clearer laws to plan for the future use of the Great Lakes’ water. Today the only laws prohibit a negative effect of U.S. water use on Canada and vise versa. The Great Lakes states’ governors have to all agree to United States use of water outside of the basin. Canada and the United States will have to both agree on the same set of guidelines to manage the lakes and to preserve them for the future.




(1) Job Office for Science Support. 5 May 2004

(2) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 11 May 2004

(3) Canadian Environmental Law Association. 4 May 2004

(4) Great Lakes Directory. 5 May 2004

(5) Michigan Land Use Institute. 5 May 2004

(6) Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. 11 May 2004

(7) Mitchell, John G. "Down the Drain? The Incredible Shrinking Great Lakes" National Geographic Sept. 2002: 34-51.

For more information:

Great Lakes Directory:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Michigan Land Institute:

Canadian Environmental Law Association:

International Joint Commission: