The Great Lakes contain a combined total of 6 quadrillion gallons of water — one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water. Only the polar ice caps and Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia contain more. The surface area of the lakes is larger than the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
The lakes span 10,900 miles of coastline along the United States and Canada. Their combined shoreline, including connecting channels, mainland and islands, is equal to almost 44 percent of the Earth's circumference.
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Cameron Davis, president of the advocacy group Alliance for the Great Lakes, calls the lakes a "finite, non-renewable natural treasure."
The vast majority of the fresh surface water in the United States may soon be off-limits to thirsty parts of the nation and the world. The eight Great Lakes states are on the verge of sending to Congress an accord that would keep water from being diverted out of the Great Lakes watershed.
Last Thursday, Pennsylvania's Senate approved the compact and Gov. Ed Rendell has said he plans to sign on, making it the final state to approve the agreement.
The five Great Lakes — Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario — contain about 90 percent of the fresh surface water in the U.S. and about one-fifth of the entire world's supply. The Great Lakes Water Compact aims to protect the lakes from large-scale water diversions.
Looking out over the clear blue-green waters, the lakes seem like oceans that go on endlessly.
"As a kid, I used to look out over Lake Michigan and say, 'My God, it goes on forever. We never have to worry about this'," says Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "But, it's not true. This is a finite, non-renewable natural treasure."
"Less than 1 percent of these great lakes are renewed every year through rain and snow melt and things like that. So what that means is, we have to make sure that the water that we have stays here and doesn't get squandered," says Davis, who grew up a few blocks from the Lake Michigan beach in Evanston, Ill.
In addition to Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes compact has been approved by the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New York.
"The compact, for the very first time, will provide uniform binding water use standards for the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces. First time ever we've all been playing off the same sheet music when it comes to how we use this amazing natural resource," says Davis.
Some of the beaches, he says, with their finely grained sands and clear waters, rival those in the Caribbean. But the lakes were often taken for granted by those who lived closest to them. Then, 10 years ago, something happened to change that.
"In 1998, there was a Lake Superior-based company in Ontario that proposed to take water by tanker out of Lake Superior to Asia," says David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.
While the proposal didn't get very far, it rang alarm bells that spurred the Great Lakes governors to take action. In 2001, they agreed to a framework to begin negotiating the compact. By 2005, they had a deal to take to their state legislatures. This was done even though the states' governors, and their political parties, all turned in the interim.
"It was a long and sometimes difficult process," Naftzger says.
The compact, first and foremost, requires those within the Great Lakes basin to take better care of it. The Great Lakes states are required to develop water conservation plans and water quality standards. The compact also prohibits large-scale diversions of Great Lakes water outside of the basin.
"It says clearly that the Great Lakes should not be the long-term water supply answer for any other part of the world or any other part of the country," Naftzger says.
Many experts say shipping or piping Great Lakes water to Southwest desert towns or drought-stricken Southern cities is still far too expensive to be a legitimate threat to the lakes. The real threat, they say, is from within the region — from cities and towns just outside the watershed that want to tap into the Great Lakes' water supply.
"It has been very frustrating to be able to see the lake from a couple of higher points in the city, but not being able to obtain the water," says Jack Chiovatera, mayor of New Berlin, Wis. His city of 38,000 people straddles the Lake Michigan watershed divide, so only about a third of residents drink and shower in water from Lake Michigan. The rest get water from underground aquifers, some of which are contaminated with radium. The compact would allow communities that straddle the watershed divide to take lake water, as long as they treat it and return it to the lake.
But the compact still needs to be approved by Congress, and "the chances of the compact passing in Congress are better the sooner it gets there," according to Noah Hall, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and a professor of water law at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. He says that while Congress usually defers to the states most affected by water compacts, this compact is unique because it governs so much of the nation's fresh water supply.
"As we're seeing droughts and water shortages in other parts of the country, I think that there's a legitimate concern that Congress might be reluctant to lock up the Great Lakes and prevent diversions to other parts of the country," Hall says.
He and other Great Lakes advocates want to get the compact through Congress before 2010. That's when a new census will be taken, which will likely result in the Great Lakes states losing anywhere from a few to a dozen seats in Congress, seats that will likely shift to states in the growing — and parched — South and West.
Zebra mussels first invaded the Great Lakes through the ballast water of ships from Europe about 20 years ago.
AP/U.S. Geological Survey via The Daily Press
AP/U.S. Geological Survey via The Daily Press
The blue-green waters of the Great Lakes seem cleaner and clearer than ever before — but while cleaner is good, clearer isn't necessarily so.
"It's a bad thing because the water looks clean because it's becoming sterile," says Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, at a recent visit to a beach in Evanston, Ill.
He says zebra mussels and other invasive species that have worked their way into the Great Lakes filter out the food, making the water clear. At the same time, he says, "it's really stripping the food base out of the food web, such that we're really in danger of unraveling the food chain we have in this region."
Zebra mussels first invaded the Great Lakes through the ballast water of ships from Europe about 20 years ago. Colonies accumulate on the water intake and discharge pipes of power plants, municipal water plants, irrigation systems and even on boat hulls and motors, causing frequent problems. But they wreak havoc on ecosystems because they consume huge amounts of phytoplankton, like algae, effectively starving populations of native fish and other water wildlife.
And now scientists say that another invasive mussel has arrived that might even be doing worse damage to the lakes.
The thumbnail-sized quagga mussel, also carried in ballast water, is native to the Russian area of the Black Sea and first began appearing in the Great Lakes about a decade ago. Quagga populations tripled between 2005 and 2007 to a quadrillion, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates. Quaggas now carpet the bottom of Lake Michigan and parts of the other Great Lakes. To some extent, they are even crowding out the zebra mussels.
"It's the same problem, times 10," Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, recently told the Chicago Sun-Times. As a result, commercial and sports fishermen and women are seeing fewer and thinner fish.
Another species that threatens to invade the Great Lakes is the Asian carp. The carp is working its way up the Illinois River system and edging closer to Lake Michigan. Federal officials hope to stop its migration with an electric fence-like barrier installed on a canal that connects the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, and ultimately, links the Great Lakes to the Mississippi.
The most frightening invasive species is actually a virus known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS. This Ebola-like virus doesn't threaten humans, but it could be a huge threat to the Great Lakes' $4 billion commercial and sport fishing industry. The infection causes fish to hemorrhage and die by the thousands — and unlike other viruses, it seems to attack all species.
"A new invasive species comes into the Great Lakes on average every six to eight months," says Davis. "Prevention is really the name of the game. Once these species get in, it's very hard to get them back out. That's why we need Congress to act to get invasive species controls in place now, and it's been very slow going."
Davis and others hope the attention given to the compact prohibiting large-scale water diversions from the Great Lakes also spurs Congress to pass legislation preventing ballast water from being dumped into the Great Lakes.
The lakes "look big, it looks like you can't hurt it," says Davis, "but in fact, these Great Lakes are incredibly delicate and fragile."