Friday, April 11, 2008

Water Wars

Growing up in northern California, I was not unfamiliar with water wars. My father told us tales about Owens Valley farmers who bombed the canals that later shipped water to Los Angeles from Owens Lake, draining it dry in 13 years. My grandfather, an impressionable teen from Sacramento at the time of the bombings, lived in California all his long life, but refused ever to set foot in water-grabbing L.A.

This introduced me to the volatility and complexity of water conflicts, a theme that former Newsweek reporter Peter Annin echoes in his excellent book, The Great Lakes Water Wars. Water tensions are on the rise, Annin writes. As demand for water outstrips supply in arid western North America, industrializing Asia, and other water-short regions, the Great Lakes will feel increasing pressure from proponents of diversions from this huge supply of the world's fresh surface water.

Water diversion projects have a history of disastrous results, as Annin illustrates by describing the fate of the shrunken Aral Sea. So Great Lakes decision makers have justification for making efforts to limit diversions, as they have done most recently with a Compact signed in 2005. With growing demand for water worldwide, will these efforts be enough to protect the Great Lakes? The stakes are high and it remains an open question, making Annin's book an important read for everyone in North America.

Ironically, the same Great Lakes water that many want for drinking also carries contaminants. That's pointed out by another important book about the Great Lakes that has worldwide implications: Melvin Visser's Cold, Clear and Deadly. This volume focuses on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chlorinated chemicals now banned in the U.S. but still used in the developing world. POPs used anywhere can go airborne and travel the world; air circulation patterns carry them poleward, depositing them in cold water bodies like Lake Superior and the Arctic Ocean. From there, they move into the food chain and wreak biological havoc, disrupting reproduction as well as causing birth defects and neurological problems.

Visser's fascinating tale tells of his evolution from chemical engineer in the pharmaceutical industry -- he graduated from Michigan Tech and worked many years for Upjohn -- to an advocate of a complete global ban on the persistent organic pollutants with which he once worked. There's conflict and tension in Visser's book, too, as he writes about this other kind of "war" affecting the water supply: the debate over production and use of chlorinated chemicals.

These books came up in discussions last month at Michigan Tech as the campus celebrated World Water Day. As a lead-in, the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders held a Popcorn and Policy panel on Great Lakes Water issues. On World Water Day, March 24th, MTU hosted two excellent lectures, with Peter Annin discussing Great Lakes Water Wars, and Jay Austin from University of Minnesota, Duluth, who explained the recent finding of a surprisingly rapid rise in Lake Superior's surface temperature. The links in the right-hand column under "Lake Superior Basin Climate Change Series" include more about Austin's research.