The Great Lakes contain vast amounts of fresh water, but keeping that water safe is important because tapping too much could have devastating ecological effects on the lakes themselves and people living near them. For that reason, states within the Great Lakes watershed, where water from the lakes naturally reaches, are quite protective of the region and generally don’t allow communities outside the watershed access to the lakes.
That just changed, though. The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, won the right to draw water from the lake rather than their own groundwater sources.
Waukesha’s groundwater is contaminated with naturally occurring radium, so the city has spent 10 years trying to get access to Lake Michigan.
The states in the watershed signed a compact in 2008 to protect the waters, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec adopted similar legislation but were not involved in the vote to approve Waukesha’s use of the water.
Ontario residents and experts have expressed concern that this will urge other communities near the watershed to make a grab for the Great Lakes. While the length of time and the expenditure to win that access has been extreme and may be a deterrent to other communities, those opposed to the access have a fair point. Waukesha has been criticized for not seriously considering other actions to tend to their water supply, like treating the water that they do have, before pushing for Great Lakes water.
As other communities begin to chip away at the compact, it will likely get easier to gain access to the Great Lakes, but that could be devastating ecologically. Water is an important resource, and when communities have access to water but don’t take the steps to protect that access, that resource can quite literally dry up.