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Syphon Water from the Great Lakes? No Way!

Triple-digit temps. No rain. The pattern might last for months or years. Lake Michigan could be coming to Idaho.

That’s what you may have heard if you recently happened upon News Radio WKLIX 1310 in Twin Falls, Idaho. For sure, it’s not the first time (nor likely to be the last) that a suggestion of syphoning water off the Great Lakes has come up. But here’s the difference: It is the first time there’s been a noteworthy idea to get the water using the political power of the Western states.

Specifically, you would have heard:

Millions of thirsty western voters will have a lot of pull on policy. As the region grows, so does its power in the United States House of Representatives. By its design, the Senate is already favorable to Western concerns. Lake Michigan may be coming to Idaho.

Yes, more than half of our Western states are reporting that “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions are impacting lake and reservoir levels, and triggering water shortages for crops and pastures. It hits boating, too.

In California, low water levels have forced Lake Oroville Marina to remove 130 houseboats. Worse, the level is so low that it’s impossible for the marina to remove more of these large boats because the water no longer reaches the ramp.

Is it just a knee-jerk solution to syphon water from the Great Lakes? Could it happen? Would it impact boating? After all, the Great Lakes region represents 35 percent of the nation’s boat owners.

Politically speaking, since the 1980s there has been a large demographic shift to the West. Political clout notwithstanding, the question is how would the water get there?

Pipelines would be the ticket. Of course, pipelines aren’t favored in some political circles, specifically those that carry our much-needed oil. But fresh water going down big pipes likely wouldn’t be viewed as environmentally or politically bad.

It’s probable that westerners see the Great Lakes as big bodies of fresh water ripe for tapping. Having spent more than 40 years cruising all the Great Lakes, I can attest to why they’re dubbed “America’s inland seas.” And their size might make one assume that they’re unlimited and immune to problems. They’re neither, of course.

Yes, they hold 21 percent of the world’s fresh water and a whopping 84 percent of North America’s. These interconnected lakes span more than 750 miles from the shores of Minnesota to upstate New York. All five lakes are shared with Canada. They provide the drinking water for more than 30 million Americans and more than 30 percent of the Canadian population. It would be a mistake to think these lakes are not fragile bodies of water.

The lake levels fluctuate annually depending on rain and snow pack, and there are multiyear cycles of highs and lows. At the moment, the lakes are high from a wet winter and spring. For example, Lake Ontario is up almost 3 feet from its level a year ago. Historically, this lake has hit its highest level since June 1952, but it won’t last.

“It would be great for us if water levels stayed stable, but that never seems to happen,” says Larry Taunt, commodore of the Muskegon Yacht Club on Lake Michigan. The club faces raising its fixed docks to keep them above the water. And in the future they could then be too high for comfortable use.

The water levels in the lakes impact literally every marina, launch ramp and channel. When the levels are low, access is a problem, and expensive dredging, with its environmental concerns and permitting drudgery, becomes necessary to even continue operating.

So, will it happen?

As Charles Dickens wrote in The Pickwick Papers: “Never say never.” However, the chances are probably slimmer than the return of the crank telephone. It would cost untold billions, although the way the Fed is printing money to cover spending these days, more of such paper could just rolled off the press.

More insuring, however, is the Great Lakes Compact between the United States and Canada, which bans the removal of water from the Great Lakes watershed. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was ratified by all eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. Congress, and signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. It provides for extremely limited exceptions that would need approval from all eight Great Lakes states plus the two Canadian provinces that border the lakes.

No matter what, the water in the Great Lakes is obviously not unlimited. Experts contend it could be dangerously depleted if care is not taken to keep the protect the resource. The marine industry throughout the region must keep watch and never discount the possibility.

Remember Dickens.

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