Recently, governors and legislatures in eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces approved the Great Lakes Compact, a landmark agreement that bans the sale and diversion of water outside the region. The people living along the shores have reason to be concerned. For 15 years, I lived in St. Ignace in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a city uniquely situated near three of the five Great Lakes. Every day yielded a visible reminder that the lakes hold an astonishing amount of water. Stand on the shore of Lake Superior, and you can't even see the other side. Watch the sun set over Lake Michigan, and you can observe the curvature of the earth. The combined volume of all five lakes is very nearly incomprehensible: 6.0 x 1015 U.S. gallons -- 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. To the casual observer, the lakes look infinite, but of course, they're not.
For as long as I lived in St. Ignace, I heard talk of water-selling schemes. The most ambitious was a proposal by an Ontario firm to ship 158 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia. That endeavor was blocked, but as the lakes dropped to their lowest levels in decades, residents couldn't help but wonder what was happening to their water. So when the Great Lakes Compact was finally signed last week, many breathed a sigh of relief.
But there's a hole in the bucket: a provision that allows diversions in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons.
Designed to accommodate bottled water companies, this might not seem much of a problem. But environmentalists worry the pact isn't strong enough. In a global market economy, everything is for sale. According to Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, by Canadian environmentalists Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, in rural communities throughout the world, foreign-based water corporations have purchased entire water systems, depleting local supplies and even bottling and reselling the water back to the people from whom it was taken.
Both the World Bank and the UN have ruled that water is a need, not a human right, and thus can be treated as any other tradable good, its use and distribution determined solely by the principles of profit. But Barlow and Clarke raise legitimate questions: Who gave transnational corporations the right to buy entire water systems? What should be the role of government regarding the stewardship of water? If water can be bought and sold by the private sector, who will buy it for Nature? How will it be made available to the poor?
Inspired by these and other water issues I recently wrote and published my debut environmental thriller Freezing Point (Berkley) about a grand, philanthropic water-transport scheme that goes horribly wrong. The novel is fiction, but the problems it touches on are very real: uneven distribution, pollution, abuse of the aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains is being depleted fourteen times faster than nature can replenish it; Silicon Valley has more water-polluting EPA Superfund sites than anywhere in the U.S. Thirty percent of the groundwater beneath Phoenix is similarly contaminated, and the Colorado River is so oversubscribed that by the time it passes though the seven states tapping into it, there's virtually nothing left to go out to sea. And my Great Lakes are still down twenty-two inches.
The debate over the fair and equitable use of earth's resources is far from over. And while it's not known whether the bottled water corporations will use the compact's 5.7 gallon caveat to their advantage, one thing is certain: Just as the amount of water in the Great Lakes is finite, so is the water on earth. It neither increases nor decreases. It just circulates endlessly, from the oceans, to the atmosphere, to the land, to the rivers, and back to the oceans again. The water in your morning shower may have once quenched the thirst of a dinosaur -- something to think about the next time you pick up a bottle of Perrier.
Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point, a thriller that Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her novel published this month by Berkley Books. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.