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Western Drought Shifts Economic Power To Great Lakes States

WOSU composite
Ongoing droughts in California and other parts of the world have directed focus on the Great Lakes region.

Much of the western United State remains mired in drought. While those states might not have much water, Ohio and other Great Lakes states are flush with fresh water, and that’s changing power dynamics and the region’s economic influence. 

There are approximately 6.5 quadrillion gallons of water in the Great Lakes; a quadrillion is one million billion. But that’s still not infinite, and people in the Great Lakes region have developed a greater appreciation of the economic potential of these five bodies of water.

Bryan Stubbs is executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, an organization working to educate people about water’s economic value and to develop new ways to preserve it. Standing on the edge of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Stubbs reflects on the resources’ growing significance.

“One only has to look at California, who has water and who doesn’t, and where opportunities exist in terms of how water impacts industry, how water impacts society. Water is obviously essential to life but also essential to a great society.”

No diversion
Over the years there have been many schemes to move Great Lakes water elsewhere. In 1982 Congress authorized a feasibility study for diverting it to the dry Midwest for agriculture. And in 1998, an entrepreneur proposed transporting the water to China in tanker ships.

The plans have all failed due to impracticality. There’s also been strong opposition. The most organized resistance is the 2008 Great Lakes Compact. It gives Ohio, along with seven other Great Lakes states, and two Canadian provinces, control over the water.

From whence it came
Stubbs says keeping it here is important for the region’s economy, particularly for industries that rely heavily on water.

“With that being said, ... we’re creating a sort of eco-system that allows industry to withdraw from it, return the water at greater quality than what they took out, and that water returns back to the watershed.”

But not all industries return the water they use. 

What doesn't come back
Based on Ohio Department of Natural Resources data, Ohio has about 1,500 fracking wells. Each one uses as much as three million gallons of water to extract natural gas while it’s in operation. But only about a third of that water can be reused because of chemical contamination.

Water is lost through household use, agriculture and industries that combine water with their products -- like beverage makers. Stubbs says the vast Great Lakes supply gives this region an advantage.

“For centuries, we’re basically given away water. Well that equation is starting to change.”

The region’s water supply has had its environmental challenges, from pollution in Lake Erie to the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, and most recently toxic algae blooms. Marty McGann is vice president for advocacy at the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the area’s chamber of commerce. He says there’s still more to do, especially in Lake Erie.

“We have a vulnerable resource and we’re learned through the challenges in Toledo last year, we’re the shallowest of the Great Lakes and the most vulnerable to some of the environmental challenges.

"So we’ve been supportive of issues at the state General Assembly around issues addressing the algal bloom and have been involved in the Army Corps of Engineers and Ohio EPA issue regarding the dredging because we know the vulnerability of this asset as well. And we want to make sure that it continues at least in the form it is in today.”

New dynamics
And the ongoing droughts in California and other parts of the world have directed focus on the Great lakes region. John Austin is director of the Michigan Economic Center. He’s studied the economic impact of the region’s plentiful fresh water supply.

“There’s a new dynamic where companies are being looked at by their investors: Are you going to out of business because you’re running out of water where you’ve got your facility for bottling or manufacturing. And the economics are going to drive more attention to, as our region is, a location of businesses, and is it sustainable in the long run because there’s water to use?”

With the Great Lakes having 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, Austin says efforts not to pollute it are very important, as are efforts to reuse it.

The Ford Motor Company was recently voted the “greenest” company in the world because it cut its water use by 80 percent. And Austin says conservation and re-use innovations are going to be a big part of the Great Lakes economy.

“I know the Cleveland area has been fostering a water alliance to produce innovation and new technology companies in water. And that’s what Milwaukee is doing; that’s what we’re doing here in Michigan; that’s what Buffalo is doing. We can really be the capital for fresh water and fresh-water innovation.”

Austin says the Great Lakes will become more of an economic asset to the region as long droughts fueled by global warming further deplete other water supplies.