The Waukesha Diversion: The Great Lakes and the Future Water Wars


Endless and beautiful Lake Michigan

In 1998, a permit was accepted by the government of the Canadian province of Ontario, following a lightly-remarked-upon 30-day public comment session, to approve a ridiculous and pointless money-making scheme. This approval set in motion a multi-national effort to protect one of the great natural treasures of the world, one that could decide the future of water on an increasingly parched planet, and one that will shape the fate of a harmless Milwaukee suburb, whose destiny lies on its placement just east of the slight bend of a continent, a product of ancient and mute geological forces. It’s a story about our distant past, and one about our every-drawing future.

It was in 1998 that a businessman,  John Febbraro, applied for a permit to have giant tankers scoop up water from the Great Lakes– specifically the giant of the group, the vast and violent Superior– and sail them through Sault St. Marie, down through Windsor, up through Erie and Ontario, into the vast river of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and then to Asia, where a thirsty market would gobble fresh water. (This is detailed excellently in Peter Annin’s Great Lakes Water Wars, a must-read for anyone interested.)

It was an amazing plan, and a ridiculous one, born of a good idea that made absolutely no sense. Febbraro planned to scoop up 427,000 gallons a day, which comes up to around 155,885,000 million gallons a year. That seems like a lot, until, as we see, that comes to about what an average-sized suburb of Milwaukee would need in a 6-month period. That…won’t solve any Asian water problems.

But still, it proved a catalyst. There was a Great Lakes Charter signed in 1985, by the eight US states and two Canadian provinces the have land bordering the states (which yes, includes Indiana). But it turned out that the Charter wasn’t very strong, which is why a plan to take water from the Lakes and ship it around the world could be approved.

The plan provoked outrage, and incredibly enough, action. Pressure- and honestly, the economic infeasibility and ridiculousness of the plan- destroyed Febbraro’s dream. But more than that, it spurred people, Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Conservative, into recognizing that the Great Lakes weren’t permanent, and could be destroyed. Just because the plan to have boats take water to Asia was absurd- and anyone who has watched giant ships sail by, dwarfed by the enormity of this water, could tell you it was absurd- didn’t mean the writing wasn’t on the wall.

After all, if a ship could take water, why couldn’t hundreds? Why couldn’t thousands? Why couldn’t pipelines be built to replenish barren reservoirs in Western deserts? While there was never a plan to make it economically feasible to do so (and many tried, both public and private), it didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. At some point, an economy of scale could take over, and it would make sense to trickle water out of the lakes.

But apres trickle, le deluge? That was, and is, the big fear, which is why in 2008 the Great Lakes Compact was signed. This was a guarantee that no one outside of the Great Lakes Basin could use water without the permission of every state and province in the region. The problem is– one of the problems is– that with the exception of Michigan, none of these states or provinces lie wholly within the Basin. Which means politics takes over.

And that leads us to Waukesha, a city the is a suburb of the Basin-included Milwaukee, but one that is just outside. Waukesha has spent years applying for a diversion, claiming that their source of water, underground wells, is dirty and mostly poisoned, and anyway won’t last them very long, and anyway, besides, they are so close. A swift walk can get you to the Basin; a decent bike ride to Lake Michigan; if you are driving, a day at the lake is like going down the street.

Most of the obstacles to their application have fallen. Last month, the Great Lakes Compact group voted 9-0 (with Minnesota abstaining) to approve the diversion, with serious conditions. Next week in Chicago, the final governor-level meeting will take place, to decide its ultimate fate.

So, this is Great Lakes water week here at Shooting Irrelevance. It’s a story of politics and the environment. It’s a story of the future of water, and how we’ll use it, and most importantly, who owns it. After all, if the Lakes are a public good, why should greedy Chicago (who has the mother of all diversions) luxuriate while citizens in Nevada parch? It’s a story about political geology, and how these ancient forces shape our present. It’s a story of competing activism, in which every side has moral ground. Mostly though, and fully, it’s a story of the Great Lakes, this gorgeous and perfect and tempestuous system. It’s a story about their strength, and their fragility.

When you stand on the southernmost edge of the system, as I often do, at that sweeping curve that defines Chicago, they seem infinite, overwhelming, almost impossible in their magnificence. You can drive for hours and hours, up the coast of Wisconsin, and around the UP, and still have barely covered half the shoreline. They are amazing, and they are not like the ocean, which are essentially inhuman in size. The Lakes, though enormous, are human. We’ve paddled across them for millennia, traded across them, sent great ships to ply them, but also to sink. To sink in their temper, in their violence, in their sudden reminder that they are not ours to do with what we like. It’s a warning, a reminder that there are enormous ships on the bottom of these lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl Bradley, that were swallowed whole. But it is also a fearful warning. There is no consciousness in lakes, but if there were, they would look at the tragedy of the Aral, and ask us to stop and think. They’d remind us that, in our tempers and ill-humors, in our short-sightedness, we can ruin a great gift.

That’s what we’ll be talking about this week; ultimately, the tragedy of competing and rational human interests in the face of unconcerned nature. Hope you’ll enjoy. Here’s a rough schedule.

  • Tuesday: the political geology and geography of Waukesha and the Lakes
  • Wednesday: an analysis of the Waukesha proposal and its opposition
  • Thursday: Activism and the Great Lakes: A Model for Environmental Impact
  • Friday: What it all means; or, the future of water.

A brief note on “politicizing tragedy”

A lesson we’re all going to learn again in the next few days is that a tragedy can’t be “politicized”, or at least that it is ok to do so, if the shooter involved is Muslim and says “ISIS” before killing people, even if he has nothing to do with actual terrorism, even if that is just the thin reed to which he clings in the tidal wave of his own hatred and madness.  Then it is ok to call out political opponents for being weak on terror, and not being manly enough. Then it is ok to score points. Not when a mentally unstable kid shoots up a schoolhouse, killing 20 kids, or a theater or a black church. Then we are politicizing tragedy.

It’s always correct to bring politics into tragedy. Politics, in a society like ours, is the result of our collective action and will. It’s the outcome of our ideas and beliefs. It is messy and angry and at times like these stained with bitter tears. But to not be political, to not try to find reason in the face of horror, is to give up, to abdicate our duties as citizens. There should be, and will be, fights about this. And that is good and healthy. We just need to make sure that we always have these fights, because that is the only way things will get changed. “Politicizing” the shooting at Emmanuel African helped bring down a flag of treason and slavery. It does make a difference.

As we said in regards to FlintBut any human-caused tragedy is inherently political, and response to it needs to be. Accusations of politicizing events are a dodge, an intellectual grift, designed to keep whatever policies caused the tragedy in place. It’s better to just say “it’s a terrible thing”, as if there was some kind of free-floating miasmatic tragedy fog that just happened to land on a place. 

As citizens of a democracy, it is our duty to create a political response to the actions of human, especially when those actions target a group vilified by so many. That’s not to take advantage of the dead, or turn them into unwitting martyrs. We don’t- I certainly don’t- speak in anyone’s name. We just need to be able to try to turn an unimaginable massacre into a better place, where it is harder and harder to kill so many people, to destroy so many lives, simply because you want to.


A Wild Howling Madness: It Does, and Doesn’t, Matter That Orlando Gunman Pledged to ISIS


Omar Mateen, the alleged Orlando shooter. Image from The Washington Post

At least 50 dead. At least 50 more wounded. As the staggering numbers gutpunched their way in this morning, and America woke to the reality that in a violent nation, we reached another grim milestone, people struggled not just with the enormity of pain and sorrow, but with what to call this. Was it a hate crime, targeted as it was at an LGBT club? Was it an act of terrorism, as we learned that the shooter had a Muslim-sounding name? Was it a mass shooting?

The last two seemed like they could be in opposition, while a hate crime can apply to both. The problem is that it is (most likely) all three. While this is (as of the writing) unconfirmed, it seems that Omar Mateen called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS shortly before the shooting started.

A few things about this make it less an act of international terrorism, and more the actions of a sick and depraved man influenced by many factors, including the religious nihilism of ISIS. But there doesn’t seem to be any training, and certainly not any real membership in ISIS. Not to be glib, but one doesn’t join ISIS by calling 911. They generally don’t relay the message. You have to actually join.

(Obviously, there is a real danger of people actually joining ISIS and receiving training, and possibly using it in the homeland. Foreign fighters are a key part if ISIS strategy. This isn’t that. It’s a different danger.)

This idea is furthered by Mateen’s father, who said that the crime was more motivated by a hatred of homosexuals.

“We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” Mir Seddique, told NBC News on Sunday. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And then we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.”

Seddique added, “This had nothing to do with religion.”

But…of course, it does. ISIS is explicitly opposed to homosexuality, and punishes it by death, as does al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and even “friendly” regimes in many Islamic countries.  Christian ones, too, if you look at Uganda. And you barely have to twist the radio dial to hear religious-based (or at least justified) hatred of gays throughout the country. Liberal laws about transgender rights have sparked an upswing of hate speech about them as well, with Republican candidates tripping over each other to issues the loudest condemnation. A hatred of gays is both created by, and justified by, religion.

And that, to me, is why it does and it doesn’t matter that he “pledged” himself to ISIS. For years, terrorism experts and laypeople alike were wondering why there weren’t mere lone wolf attacks in the name of Qaeda or ISIS. Now, that door has fully opened, and the number of people carrying out mass shootings in the name of ISIS is going up. I think it will certainly increase. But let’s not say that this is a sign that ISIS is getting powerful, or more absurdly, that it means we are “losing” in struggle against radical fundamentalism. We may be, but these are not signs of it.

What they are signs of is that it is extremely easy to kill a lot of people in America. It happens all the time. There is a sickness and violence in our culture, a roiling anger at immigrants or gays or Muslims or Southerners or just fucking life in general, just the dispossession of a post-industrial and unequal society, where binds are breaking, and every day we hear the snapping tendons of what once held us together.

Some of these people will identify as Muslim, and decide to tell 911 or Twitter that they love ISIS before billowing out into a hurricane of murderous insanity. Some will tell a Mens’ Rights message board. Some won’t tell anyone but the diary they keep next to a dog-eared copy of misread Nietzsche.

Of course, this is what ISIS wants, by telling anyone that they are “part” of ISIS if they pledge allegiance in public. But that’s even more to the point: they are taking advantage of a sickness, of people who feel weak and helpless and want to be part of something bigger. It’s little different than Eric Harris or Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or Dylan Roof.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which imaginary idol is being propitiated by violence, whether that is white pride, Jesus, or Allah. The slaughtered are no more or less dead due to which angry god is invoked. The suffering of the families is no more or less real. We will argue, in the days and weeks, as to whether this is terrorism, or a hate crime. Liberals will hear smug lectures about how we should now see that terrorism is bad, as if we didn’t already know that. That he pledged to ISIS will be a data point in people’s absurd spreadsheets about winning or losing, and we won’t look at the main question, the one that is truly about ourselves, about the dark heart thumping madly in the center of this nation.