It’s no secret that fresh water is one of the most valuable resources on Earth. Beyond its role as a key source of hydration, it also provides a clean alternative to fossil fuel based energies. Currently, 1 in 3 people don’t have access to clean water—a statistic that is expected to get worse as the population grows. To make matters even more desperate, the fresh water we do have access to is jeopardized by rapidly climbing global temperatures. As the planet heats up and climate change threatens to lower our water supply, who is allowed to draw from sources of freshwater like the Great Lakes will soon become even more contested.
Today, water in the Great Lakes is safe-guarded by the Great Lakes Compact, a policy which prevents communities outside of the Great Lakes basin from diverting its water to their towns. Although there are avenues to apply for diversions, these are reserved for temporary emergencies and applicants who are located partially within the basin. These stringent regulations have generally functioned as a preventative measure toward outside inquiries since the Compact’s enactment in October of 2008, and have broadly succeeded in maintaining the basin’s supply of freshwater.
The Great Lakes contain roughly 20% of the world’s freshwater supply—that astonishing figure balloons to 90% when narrowing our perspective to a national scale. However, barely a scant 1% of this water is replenished through rainfall and snowmelt each year, which is what makes it so crucial that we keep as much water local to the basin as possible. Although the Northeastern U.S. is expected to see an increase in precipitation over the coming decades, even that won’t be enough to make a dent in replenishing the basin’s supply.
Extenuating circumstances have driven areas suffering from drought to clamor for a portion of the water hosted by the Great Lakes basin, but it remains critical that we maintain the integrity of the Compact. Yes, the effects of drought on American communities warrants our empathy and assistance, but diverting water from the Great Lakes to areas in need is not the way to provide it. Even if these emergency diversions were to be approved, it remains unclear who exactly would be paying for them. In fact, it is likely that the brunt of the expense would fall on the average citizen through jacked up water prices, as was the case in the recent diversion of freshwater to Waukesha County in Wisconsin.
Rather than taking water from the Great Lakes, the best way to help communities suffering from a lack of clean water is through support to transparent charities that provide relief like Water.org or Water For People. Beyond donating, it’s also important to practice mindful usage of our own water supply. Freshwater is a global system, and while conserving water in one location won’t have immediate effects on the supply in another, it contributes as a whole to the proper distribution of water worldwide.
It is also important that we maintain the sanctity of the Great Lakes. Not only is the Great Lakes Compact an excellent safeguard for the basin, it also ensures the responsible use of the basin’s water through its requirement that every Great Lakes state establish proper water management programs. Policies like these, as well as anti-pollution efforts from action centers like this one, help secure the presence of fresh water in the future. As climate change rocks our changing world, protecting our valuable supply of freshwater is paramount in a time when the availability of water may no longer be a certainty.
Rose Khoobyar is a student at Rochester Institute of Technology.
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