Water is often on a Californian’s mind.
Californians know to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, let their lawns go brown, and (the diehards) even flush every other time they pee. Since the move to Chicago, I have come to find that this water consciousness is a part of who I am, as I continue these practices despite leaving the drought behind.
Water is also often on my mind because of the proximity to a water source I have always enjoyed. Running along the American River in Sacramento and tide-pooling along the Pacific Ocean in Monterey are some of my favorite memories of California. So, here in Chicago, I am ecstatic to be so close to Lake Michigan.
Curious to learn more about the body of water that has made Chicago feel more like home, I read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. The bulk of the book discusses the devastating effects invasive species have had on the health of the lakes, but the Californian in me was most captivated by the issues of water supply. When a parched Californian hears that the Great Lakes (one of which she lives ten minutes from) contains 20% of the world’s fresh water supply, she gets a little giddy. Chapter 8, “Plugging the Drain: The Never-Ending Threat to Siphon Away Great Lakes Water,” explains the perks of living within the Great Lakes watershed and gives a disturbing example of a vanishing body of water.
My parched brain greedily soaked up the fact that only inhabitants within the watershed can tap into the Great Lakes water supply. Egan explains, “the rationale is that most all the water piped from the lakes but kept inside their basin eventually makes its way back into the lakes… Water piped over the line, whether it’s one mile over or 1,000 miles over, never returns, and if enough of it is diverted over time, the lakes…will begin to shrink” (248). As you can imagine, this definition has been through some refinement and as it stands, cities or towns within a county that lies at least partially within the Great Lakes basin can access the water supply (248). Chicago is one of the few, but biggest, exceptions to this rule, as it drinks in about two billion gallons a day from Lake Michigan and sends its wastewater down to the Mississippi River (271).
The above rule is to protect against massive water withdrawals, because apparently whenever a US city is experiencing a drought, they look to the Great Lakes – Egan references the “famous” (though I would argue infamous) California drought but makes no mention of the state attempting to tap into the Great Lakes (270).
Waukesha, WI, just outside the watershed, has exhausted its ground water supplies and has been ordered to find another source of water (250). While Atlanta and New York City have looked to the Great Lakes during times of extreme drought, Egan predicts that it will be cities like Waukesha that test the resolve of the watershed rule.
If it seems silly to think that the water could ever run out, Egan offers an eye-opening anecdote. The Aral Sea, on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth largest lake, but the Soviet Union diverted the rivers that fed into it to irrigate cotton fields in the 1960s. Egan states, “the cotton came; the lake literally went away” (265). He explained that, by 2007, only 10 percent of its former volume remained.