Peter Annin recalls staring in horror at what had been the coast of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, now a wasteland strewn with scrub brush and corroded hulls of abandoned fishing boats.
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Peter Annin recalls staring in horror at what had been the coast of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, now a wasteland strewn with scrub brush and corroded hulls of abandoned fishing boats.
Once the world's fourth-largest inland water body, the Aral has shrunk to a quarter of its previous surface area in less than half a century _ the result of a Soviet-era decision to divert rivers feeding the sea to promote farming in that arid section of central Asia.
Annin visited the region while researching his newly released book, "The Great Lakes Water Wars," published by Island Press. The former Newsweek magazine correspondent says he'd heard ominous references to the Aral disaster while studying the debate over Great Lakes water diversion.
"It kind of defies the bounds of the mind to grasp how dire the ecological situation is there," Annin said in an interview. "When you're standing on the bottom of a sea bed where there should have been water 45 feet over your head, and instead there's none as far as the eye can see, how do you describe that?"
Engineering and political obstacles make it unlikely the Great Lakes will suffer the Aral's fate, but the tragedy still conveys a warning, Annin says: "What it showed to me in a very surreal way was that these giant lakes are vulnerable, they actually can be drained. They are not immune to human destruction."
His premise is that an era of warring over the Great Lakes is under way _ and will intensify as the global water shortage worsens. The region's way of life hangs in the balance as leaders grapple with how to preserve what amounts to nearly one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water, Annin writes.
Representatives of the eight Great Lakes states last year signed a compact to ban most diversions of water outside the drainage basin, require each state to regulate water use and establish a regional standard for large-scale water withdrawals. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec pledged separately to adopt the same policies.
But the compact still faces an uphill climb, needing approval of legislatures in each state and the U.S. Congress.
"The Great Lakes Water Wars" describes the agreements and the contentious negotiations that produced them. But that's just the conclusion of a story that began more than a century earlier with construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which diverts water away from Lake Michigan.
The book relates the history of that still-controversial project and skirmishes over other proposed diversions. It explains how the Great Lakes were formed, their unique characteristics and threats facing them, from the global water shortage to exotic species and climate change.
Annin's idea for the book took hold after a Canadian consulting firm called The Nova Group ignited a firestorm in 1998 by proposing shipments of Lake Superior water to Asia. Covering a public meeting in Chicago, Annin was struck by the depth of feeling as speakers described what the lakes meant to them.
He concluded it was "so massive, so emotional, so complicated a topic, it seemed to be a natural book."
Annin, who lives in Madison, Wis., kicked the project into high gear after leaving Newsweek to become associate director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, a nonprofit foundation that supports improved environmental reporting.
Noah Hall, a Wayne State University environmental law professor and a source for the book, says he initially considered the "Water Wars" title hyperbolic but changed his mind after reading it.
"Peter documents over 20 years of fights over Great Lakes water and clearly shows that those fights were just the first round of what's going to be many long battles," Hall says.
Those two decades began when the region's governors and premiers approved the Great Lakes Charter in 1985. Although nonbinding, it committed the states and provinces to manage the lakes as one system and consult each other about major withdrawals.
The next year, Congress amended the federal Water Resources Development Act, enabling the governor of any Great Lakes state to veto any would-be diversion.
The law and the charter were inspired largely by rumored schemes to pipe huge volumes of Great Lakes water long distances _ perhaps to replenish the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains or relieve drought in New York City.
But while those grandiose ideas never got off the ground, the region saw an outbreak of smaller-scale squabbles in places such as Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and Lowell, Ind. _ communities that straddle or lie just outside the basin boundary but wanted Great Lakes water.
Those episodes show "the front line in the Great Lakes water war is really here at home," Annin says. "Right along the rim of the basin, there are a number of communities that are facing either depleted or contaminated groundwater supplies, or both. This is where the tensions are going to lie in the foreseeable future."
The governors and premiers agreed in 2001 to strengthen the charter, setting off negotiations that finally produced the compact.
Whether it will be ratified is far from certain. Some environmentalists believe its withdrawal provisions are too weak, while business interests consider them too tough.
Annin favors the compact, whatever its flaws: "This is the best shot the Great Lakes basin has at managing its waters."
Source: Associated Press