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Sax reflects on the Great Lakes basin during Wege lecture

Opening up the waters in the Great Lakes to non-basin states may do less ecological damage than forcing these states to use smaller, out-of-basin water sources, Joseph L. Sax said at the second annual Peter M. Wege Lecture.

At the Nov. 6 speech, Sax said there are two predominant concerns regarding diversion of Great Lakes water: How the water is going to be allocated between basin and non-basin states, as well as within basin states themselves; and what effects these demands will have on basin and non-basin water sources.

Many basin states actually have minimal land in the basin, he said. However, basin states are entitled, by interstate water laws, to basin water for all uses within the state. By the same laws, non-basin states have no use rights to any of the water, he said.

"Interstate water laws allow all water of a system to be apportioned among riparian jurisdiction, which necessarily excludes any non-riparian state from using the water," said Sax, adding that "this has never been explicitly tested in the courts by non-riparian states." Sax is the James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Studies, emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. He was the Philip A. Hart Distinguished University Professor at U-M.

Despite the legal rights of basin states, Sax warned that preventing non-basin states from utilizing some Great Lakes basin water may not be good policy.

"It is important to keep in mind that the Great Lakes are by far the biggest water resource in the region. Insofar as their waters are ruled out for nearby out-of-basin economically realistic demands, there is a chance of those needs being met by smaller and more vulnerable out-of-basin sources. So what is designed as a protective scheme ends up doing increasing damage," he said.

Because there is a limited supply of water on the planet, Sax pointed out that when one source becomes restricted, demand is driven to the next available unrestricted source. The danger arises when this new source is small or unstable, and the demand on its resources causes a great ecological threat. He said that
threat would not be as pronounced or possibly not present at all if the water were taken from the Great Lakes basin.

"The question isn't whether the request is from in-basin or out-of-basin, but how much adverse impact drafting will have on the various locations from which water could, and likely would, be taken," he said.

Sax also dispelled the notion that water from the Great Lakes basin would be transported to the arid states in the West. There is no threat, he said, because the West does not need Great Lakes water.

Many farmers in the West receive government subsidies on water, Sax said. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water consumption in the West. Farmers, especially those with economically low-value crops, such as cotton and alfalfa, can sell their excess water to urban areas, he said.

Another factor is the high cost involved in getting large amounts of water from the Great Lakes out to the West, he said.

"Western agriculture can't afford Great Lakes water under even the most optimistic shipping estimates, and urban industrial users west of the 100th meridian can find, and will continue to find, cheaper and less environmentally disruptive sources," Sax said.

Urban growth in the basin states and nearby non-basin states will continue to factor into the Great Lakes basin, he said. However, he said, "Urban growth is a powerful force. Places experiencing growth seem to find water one way or another." Sax expects conflicts of interests in these local areas of growth.

Making sure the Great Lakes system could be fundamentally managed as an integrated basin, while at the same time remaining available to non-intrusive out-of-basin uses to protect other potentially vulnerable sources, would create "the best of both worlds," he said.

The Peter M. Wege lecture was part of a two-day event, "Challenging Future: Great Lakes Symposium." Topics included the ecological history of the lakes, non-indigenous species, lake contaminants and impacts of climate change.

The program was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research in partnership with the School of Natural Resources and Environment Center for Sustainable Systems and the Michigan Sea Grant College Program.

Related story: OVPR funds two interdisciplinary Great Lakes projects>

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