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American Opinion

In search of a Midwestern motherlode

I’m writing this in a waterfront getaway on the shore of Lake Michigan, part of the single biggest freshwater reservoir on the planet. I’m indoors because it’s raining. That’s news — good news.

But now what? The Midwest is waking up to the fact that its sits on a vast wet resource as important as the rich farmland that first created the region’s economy. Not so long ago, we thought this resource might be drying up, slowly but inexorably. Now, for reasons that seem linked to climate change, the lake waters are making a comeback.

But the Great Lakes states and cities haven’t begun to figure out how to use this watery bonanza to revive their crumbling economies. Mostly, they use the lake water for tourism and to make beer. They do a pretty good job of conserving the water and keeping it clean, without thinking what they could do with it.

But climate change is parching the planet. From China to California, the world is drying out. Twenty years from now, anyone wanting to live, work, or invest in a place with a reliable supply of fresh water will have a dwindling number of choices. The Great Lakes region leads this list, but is doing virtually nothing to prepare for it.

The Great Lakes — Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario — contain 20 per cent of all the freshwater in the world. (Next come Lake Baikal in Siberia and the Great Lakes of central Africa — neither likely locales for water-based industries.)

Over the past decade, Great Lakes water levels declined, reaching an historic low last year. Some blamed climate change; others alleged misguided dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers. In truth, not many people cared, apart from lakeside homeowners watching their shorelines recede and their docks rise.

But in the past year, this decline has reversed. Levels are up a foot or more this year and are predicted to keep rising. Again, various reasons are cited but most of it seems due to the perversity of climate change.

In a warming world, the Midwest just had one of its coldest and snowiest winters. Heavy snowfalls and spring rains fed the rivers that feed the Lakes. In addition, most of the Lakes froze over, which slowed evaporation.

In other words, the caprice of Mother Nature gets most of the credit, and could reverse itself again next year. But so far, so good. 

Now, what do we do about it? The Midwest has always lived on its natural resources. Farmland, of course, generated the vast breadbasket that supported both the region’s farm towns and a mighty range of industries, from processors like Cargill to equipment makers like Caterpillar. Beneath this fecund surface lay the coal and iron that powered the region’s heavy industries. For a century, the Midwest lived off its land.

That’s over now. Farming and manufacturing remain vital to the Midwestern economy, but both now are so dependent on technology and automation that neither creates enough jobs to support its towns and cities. It’s time to find a new mother lode.

This is why some far-sighted Midwesterners are looking out the window at all that water and are wondering what can be done with it besides drinking it or fishing in it. What freshwater expertise can be exported to a thirsty world? What new processes and machinery are needed to keep cities alive? What industries need freshwater and will invest where it’s available?

Of course, it’s vital to conserve and preserve this water, which the Great Lakes states already do quite well. Now, how can this resource be used to reverse the region’s long-lasting decline?

Naturally, there has been talk of simply selling the water to drier areas — basically, laying a thousand-mile pipeline to water golf courses in Las Vegas. This won’t happen, partly because of the cost and engineering challenges, but mostly because of the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, an accord between the eight Great Lakes states, Ontario, and Quebec that puts legal limits on the diversion of Lakes water outside its watershed. If the water is going to be used, it’s going to be used here.

Only Milwaukee, the Wisconsin lakeside city north of Chicago, 

has done anything about this. It discovered that it had more than 100 companies making valves, meters, and other water-based products and formed the Milwaukee Water Council to market this resource. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee set up a school of water research, to seek new uses. Marquette, the city’s big Catholic university, even established a major in water law, to create the business services that this new industry will need.

Milwaukee is promoting itself as the freshwater capital of the universe and is selling its services to the Middle East, China, and other parched regions. You’d think that Chicago and other lakeside cities would be jumping on this boat.

But Midwestern politics is so balkanised, with cities and states fighting each other when they should be cooperating, that Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes are barely aware of Milwaukee’s fledgling successes. Some water research takes place, but there has been no attempt at all by the region to take this eight-state resource and jointly exploit it.

Milwaukee knows that it can’t keep these riches to itself. It even dropped the “Milwaukee” from the name of the Milwaukee Water Council, making the point that there’s enough water to go around and that any number can swim in it. It knows it is too small to dominate this regional industry and is almost inviting Chicago to take the lead.

To their credit, Chicago and other lakeside cities are laying plans to keep themselves cool and green as temperatures rise. But that is a separate, ecological, issue. All these cities, traditionally dependent on heavy industry, will need to stay not only green but economically viable.

They’ve got the manufacturing expertise and they’ve got the water. But so far, apart from Milwaukee, they haven’t figured out how to put the two together.