Water Diversions and War


Image result for fury road water

Spring Break, 2030! 


Here’s the term you are going to need to know in the next part of your life and the life of the planet: hydro-political strife. From Science Daily. 

More than 1,400 new dams or water diversion projects are planned or already under construction and many of them are on rivers flowing through multiple nations, fueling the potential for increased water conflict between some countries.

A new analysis commissioned by the United Nations uses a comprehensive combination of social, economic, political and environmental factors to identify areas around the world most at-risk for “hydro-political” strife. This river basins study was part of the U.N.’s Transboundary Waters Assessment Program.

Researchers from the United States, Spain and Chile took part in the analysis, which has been recommended by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe as an indicator for the U.N.’s sustainable development goals for water cooperation.

Results of the study have just been published in the journal Global Environment Change.

The analysis suggests that risks for conflict are projected to increase over the next 15 to 30 years in four hotspot regions — the Middle East, central Asia, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, and the Orange and Limpopo basins in southern Africa.

Whomever controls the water has enormous power over their neighbors. It’s a pretty terrifying situation when you think about it: just because your weird and arbitrary border has a river in it, you get to control the lives of people across that line? You can divert it, shunt it, dam it and drain it?

But really, that’s the way it always has been. America, of course, has its fair share of problems with that, like how we pretty much shut off the Colorado from Mexico (a situation that has been slowly and promisingly remediated, though no one knows what a Trump presidency will do to it).

That’s the way it has always been, sure, with resources being the reason for and tool of war, but that doesn’t mean we’re not entering scary new times. There are more people and less water. Climate change is going to be scything across the globe like a whirlwinded Queen of Hearts. Resources will be hoarded and dams will lead to war. An irrigation ditch can be a casus belli. We all know that in the 21st-century, water is war. But I don’t think people recognize just how hair-trigger and volatile it is going to be.

Think of how complex the Waukesha Diversion was. And how peaceful it was. Now imagine how difficult and fraught diversion negotiations will be when it is the life and death of a nation at stake. Think of how easy it will be to boil over into violence. Think of how that has happened in America’s past. That’s tomorrow’s world. Unless we actually come up with a legitimate mechanism for handling these situations, which means a de facto dissolving of some measures of national sovereignty, there is no chance.


Waukesha Gets Its Water


A Great Lakes sunrise for Waukesha. Image from North Country Public Radio

Previous Waukesha posts:

Governors from the eight Great Lakes states agreed Tuesday to allow a Wisconsin city to start pumping millions of gallons a day from Lake Michigan, marking the largest diversion of water from the lakes since Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.

The unanimous decision favoring Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb of 70,000 about 17 miles west of the lake, is the first test of a 2008 legal compact intended to prevent thirsty communities or countries outside the Great Lakes region from dipping into the world’s largest source of fresh surface water.

Chicago Tribune

There are two ways to look at this: one is that it is a disaster, a slippery slope, a sluice suddenly opened that’ll eventually compromise the Great Lakes. The other way to look at it is that it showed the Compact, essentially works. The Compact does have allowances, and Waukesha has possibly the strongest possible case: straddling the Basin, poisonous waters, a plan to divert 100% of the water back into the Lakes, etc. And yet they still spent years and years and millions of dollars trying to get the exemption, and their plan was shrunk and compromised. If a city with the best-case scenario for application can barely get it, what chance does Arizona have?

And yet, the flip side of this is that you always start with the easy one. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is some conspiracy here. But I do worry greatly about water, and the desire to privatize it, and anything that makes it easier to do so can be troublesome. Do you really trust Rick Snyder with your water?

For the most part, protecting the Great Lakes has had a surprising amount of bipartisan support for conservation. Being angry at environmentalists usually stops when it is your resources on the line, and the Lakes are one of America’s great treasures. It’s why staunch conservatives like Tommy Thompson were eagerly behind it. I worry about the new breed, though, who see it as a mission to put everything public in private hands. That Minnesota governor Mark Dayton approved, given the conditions, makes me feel better, but Walker, Rauner, Snyder, et all (including Cuomo) is worrisome. Approving the diversion might be right, and might be essentially apolitcial (it is supposed to be), but given the attempt to parcel off water to the highest bidder, caution is required. I do think Republicans of good faith want to protect the Lakes. I don’t trust those who believe the free market can do it on its own.

Given the need for vigilance, it is disheartening to see that neither the Times nor the Post saw fit to cover this. I know we’re just the Midwest, but this is actually a huge story.

Speaking of, I am working on a much longer non-blog piece about the diversion. If you are a publisher, or know any, and would be interested, drop me a line. Thanks!

Waukesha and Borges

I want to apologize to the literally somes of you who have been reading the Waukesha/Borges pieces. It’s been a far busier week at work than I thought, and I haven’t been able to devote the time I wanted to them over the last couple of days. The quicker political pieces are easier to do before work*. I hope to finish up the both of the series this weekend. In the meantime, if you are interested, please feel free to read the first entries in each.

The Borges Retrospective:

Waukesha Diversion Week!


*If there happens to be an idle billionaire who wants to subsidize this blog, and my lavish lifestyle, we can maybe work something out…

Waukesha Diversion Week: What Waukesha Wants

Waukesha Diversion Week!


Image from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


To the city of Waukesha, that unassuming Milwaukee suburb, the request seemed like a no-brainer, and coming as it did before the Great Lakes Compact was signed, seemed like a sure bet. The aquifer from which it drew its water contained naturally-occurring radium, and the growing community of 70,000 felt that they needed a cleaner and safer source.  Reasonably, they looked not-very-far-east, some 20 miles, to the shores of Lake Michigan, which contains some six quadrillion gallons of water, and provides more than a billion gallons a day for drinking. The initial Waukesha request, at less than 20 million gallons a day, seemed reasonable.

And certainly, it made sense. They were a “collar county”, straddling the Basin, with the eastern part of the county firmly within its natural borders. The Compact provides exceptions for straddling cities and counties, provided that they can meet a strict set of standards.

Wisconsin Counties within Great Lakes Basin

(Images from Waukeshadiversion.org)

Now, if you were the town fathers of Waukesha, you would feel that there is a certain didactic madness to any opposition, a sort of pecksniff tyranny not just of geology, but of pedagogy as well.

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The Waukesha Diversion: Geology in Human Affairs

Waukesha Diversion Week. Part I: The Great Lakes And the Future Water Wars


The formation of the lakes. See that 9000 years ago it was draining south. Image from glerl.noaa.gov


I type this late at night, after an evening of losing softball near the shores of Lake Michigan, which has seen us lose more than a little. It’s a warm night, on the stilled brink of a storm, and like many nights, I can hear the clacking rattle of a skateboard. There’s a kid who lives down the street, who nearly every night, walks his skateboard to the hill at the corner, and goes down.  Last year we heard him fall nearly every time, and were impressed by his ability to get back up. A cold-winded winter, in which he practiced most nights, made him better, and after he goes to the top of the hill, he shimmers down with ever more reckless speeds.

I wonder if he knows why, in this flat part of Illinois, in one of the flattest areas in the country, the street has a small hill, no more than 15 feet and low-angled, but for this area, substantial. Why his skateboarding has improved because his parents decided to live on this street, in this town. How the ancient geology of lakes affects his life, and in a real way, the interests that will shape him. If he lived two blocks down skateboarding would have basically been as interesting as cross-country skiing, which is to say: not at all.

But that’s sort of the point of this week’s series on Waukesha: the unseen role of geology, from the crisp edge of a basin to the smallest hill in Illinois. We are beholden to it, and it shapes our politics. It predates us, and it will outlast us, and our little human concerns have to find a way to propitiate geology. Becuase it doesn’t care if we do or not; it’ll keep on shaping out lives, vast and unseen, down to the water we’re allowed to drink.

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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.