Fresh water could become the ‘new oil’

When he talks about the importance of protecting the Great Lakes, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett likes to share a few alarming quotes from afar:

•    “I’m from Texas and down there we understand that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. If we get (control of) it in Washington, we’re not going to be buying it. We’ll be stealing it. You are going to have to protect your Great Lakes,” said former U.S. Rep. and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

•    “I believe the western states and eastern states have not been talking to each other when it comes to proper use of our water resources. I want a national water policy. We need a dialogue between states to deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery and water production. States like Wisconsin are awash in water,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

•    “So let’s build a consortium of Sunbelt states, ante up some money and design an Alaska-like water pipeline system,” James Slack, political science professor in Alabama.

Comments like those demonstrate why fresh water may someday become even more valuable than oil. As populations in warm, dry regions in the United States and the world continue to grow at a brisk pace, the Great Lakes region, home to 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water supply, will become even more of a target for those who do not have enough water, Barrett said.

“I think the threats to it are real, and I think the threats to it are growing,” Barrett said. “Without a compact, I think the chances (of dry regions tapping into the Great Lakes) rise astronomically.”

Milwaukee evolved as a city because of its location on Lake Michigan, and the Great Lake still defines the city today, Barrett said.

“Lake Michigan is the heart of Milwaukee,” he said. “It defines us. It has always been the lifeblood of the city.”

According to its supporters, the proposed Great Lakes Water Compact is an attempt to prevent far-away regions from depleting the water.

“I think it’s vitally important for protecting the Great Lakes,” said state Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee). “Arizona, Alabama and China … those are all places that have had their eyes on our water and they want it badly.”

The compact would protect the Great Lakes because 99 percent of the United States would not be able to apply for a Great Lakes water diversion, said Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson.

“I think it’s important that each region of the country figures out both short-term and long-term water solutions,” Nelson said.

However, future technological advances may put less pressure on the Great Lakes, according to state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin). Future technologies may allow for easy conversion of salt water to fresh water, she said.

“Anything could happen,” Lazich said.

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