Written by Caleb Barsch, ESLLC 2016-2017
At the dawn of the 21st Century, the world is facing a water crisis never seen before. The massive number of people living in water-insecure regions, be they deserts, coastal regions with only salt water, or developing urban areas with contaminated water, are at an all-time high. The Worldwatch Institute states that 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce areas. Another 1.6 billion live with water insecurity for economic reasons. The massive increase of people living in water-scarce areas seem to be counterintuitive; it is the number one resource required for human survival. The exponential growth here in this country of Southwestern and Californian populations show that the most water-insecure locations see the greatest population growth. Naturally, massive population growth and booming of commercial agriculture in the Southwest and Great Plains have run the Colorado River and Ogallala Aquifer, once thought undrainable, almost completely dry. What are these people to do once the water runs dry? Common sense dictates that they pack up and move to a place with adequate water resources, in which case my cottage on the shore of Lake Winnebago should be pretty valuable pretty soon. However, convincing someone to leave their home is rarely effective, so solutions may be found to keep people in the West. One possibility that has been examined is pumping water from the Great Lakes via pipeline to parched Western states. This move would be absolutely ridiculous, harmful for both sides, and incredibly wasteful. No water tastes better than Lake Superior water, but the costs far outweigh the benefits.
For one, the logistics of such a pipeline would be impossible to manage. Such a massive pipeline would have to be checked on every mile every day to ensure that evaporation and leakage were kept in check, and the pipeline could not be too large due to basic engineering constraints, meaning that this could not single-handedly save Phoenix or Los Angeles. The Smithsonian reports that Arizona could be out of water by 2022 if the state enters into drought. The Great Lakes pipeline is not the answer, because the project would simply be too massive, and it would not fully fix the problem.
Second, the people of the Great Lakes would never agree to such a pipeline, and rightly so. The only water to be diverted out of the Great Lakes Basin since the Great Lakes Compact was signed in 2008 was approved earlier this year to Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee 17 miles west of Lake Michigan. The city’s water supply had been contaminated with radium for years, and the city sought a diversion from Lake Michigan. It took the better part of a decade, unanimous consent from 8 governors, and a promise to pipe all water back to Lake Michigan for Waukesha’s request to be approved. This legal firestorm for a community 17 miles away from the Great Lakes proves that public opinion would be starkly against a long-distance pipeline. For comparison, Phoenix is over 1700 miles away from Chicago, the nearest Great Lakes city. Michigan governor Rick Snyder in particular was vehemently against the Waukesha decision until he was shown concrete plans that every drop of water routed to Waukesha would be returned to Lake Michigan, proving that political opposition to such a long-distance pipeline would be insurmountable.
People inherently wish to maintain the resources they have, and the people of the Great Lakes wish to conserve their water. This leaves the residents of Phoenix and Tucson in an interesting predicament. The official answer from the water-rich states seems to be “tough, find a solution yourself”. That reality is uncomfortable, but it is the reality. The Southwest is using water unsustainably, and have no one but themselves to blame. The miracle bailout from up north is just not going to happen, and that’s perfectly all right. Phoenix will dry up, and residents will have no choice but to leave. This is harsh, but there is no other way to say it. Colorado is littered with ghost towns that became abandoned when the silver, copper, or gold ran out. Arizona, California, and others will be littered with water ghost towns, and they should be allowed to fail. There is no point jeopardizing the water security of the Midwest because the Southwest used water so unsustainably. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois are not responsible for Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico’s poor water management.