Third Rail Proposal: Selling Great Lakes water proposed to lower lake levels

Third Rail Proposal: Selling Great Lakes water proposed to lower lake levels
February 18, 2020 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now
Photo courtesy of Russell Sekeet via flickr.com cc 2.0
Photo by University of Chicago

Todd Henderson, University of Chicago law professor, Photo by University of Chicago

“My purpose was to spark a conversation,” said University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson as he touched the third rail of Great Lakes issues—selling water to arid states outside the region.

With record high lake levels “wreaking havoc” around the region, Henderson noticed the proposed solutions by elected officials and the Army Corps of Engineers were focused on expensive deterrents like hard barriers.

He felt more creative solutions were needed and proposed in a Chicago Tribune column selling the excess water to regions in need.

“We have too much water here, but plenty of communities have too little water,” he wrote. “About half of Texas is experiencing moderate to severe drought.”

He also mentioned “vast swaths” of western states in the midst of drought.

“Moving water from Lake Michigan to farmers and communities in these places would make everyone better off,” Henderson said.

The revenue from the sale of water could be used to shore up state budgets and provide relief for lakefront communities impacted by the lake levels, Henderson proposed.

He cited Illinois as an example of where selling water could benefit the state.

“States such as Illinois have financial problems that are imperiling long-term economic growth and the well-being of their citizens,” Henderson said. Illinois had an unfunded pension liability of $137 billion in December 2019, according to a Reuters report.

He did not mention Michigan, but its governor and legislature have been squabbling over how to pay for billions of dollars in overdue road repairs. Unable to reach a road-funding agreement with the legislature, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced she would use her authority to borrow $3 billion for road repairs.

Challenges in the West

In a lengthy phone interview, Henderson told Great Lakes Now that he claims no expertise in water resource management, though early in his professional career he was a geological engineer. He worked on water issues in Southern California where he became aware of the challenges western states are facing.

Over the years drought conditions have hurt areas like Playa Lakes in Anson, Texas, Photo by USDA NRCS Texas via wikimedia.org

He said drought-stricken areas are interested in market solutions to water shortages and he believes the marketplace can provide them.

“Water is absolutely a commodity that should be bought and sold,” he said, and “a futures market for water would help to get water where it is needed.”

Henderson’s legal specialty is in securities and banking regulation and economics.

Aware of the barriers to his proposal to sell the excess water, Henderson said he is not in favor of water privatization and if a plan to sell water is enacted, government regulation would be necessary.

He also understands that there is a state and federal process to modifying the Great Lakes Compact, the eight-state agreement designed to prevent diversions of the kind Henderson is proposing.

Not the first time it’s been suggested

Henderson’s proposal didn’t resonate with the regional Great Lakes governors group responsible for the compact.

“Schemes like this reinforce the importance of the Great Lakes Compact and what it is designed for—putting an end to the specter of large-scale, long-distance water diversions and ensuring that our waters are responsibly managed,” said Dave Naftzger, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.

Image by E Pluribus Anthony via wikimedia.org Public Domain

Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Image by E Pluribus Anthony via wikimedia.org Public Domain

Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec have a separate agreement that matches the compact. They cannot vote on U.S. diversion requests but must be consulted.

Henderson’s water-trading idea is not the first. In 1998, the Canadian Nova Group requested a permit to ship Great Lakes water to Asia and it was granted without fanfare.

But when activists and government officials became aware, they were outraged, and approval of the permit was withdrawn. The event put a spotlight on the vulnerability of laws barring diversions. It eventually launched the process that led to the Great Lakes Compact in 2008, which prevents large-scale diversions of the kind Henderson is proposing.

The exception is Chicago which is allowed to take over 2 billion gallons daily based on a 1967 Supreme Court ruling. Chicago does not have to return water to Lake Michigan as is required for other diversions.

Wisconsin author Peter Annin has the long view on diverting water from the Great Lakes and has authored two books on the topic.

“These kinds of proposals come up during high-water periods. From an engineering perspective and a geopolitical perspective, they are quite naive. But then water levels always fall and the proposals fade away,” Annin told Great Lakes Now.

He doesn’t see the eight states revisiting the compact based on the current high water levels and thinks it would be “foolish” for the region to encourage outsiders to tap the Great Lakes.

Cameron Davis, who led the efforts of environmental groups to enact the compact, did not respond to a request for comment.

Annin directs the Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College and Davis is a commissioner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Profit-minded outsiders

Photo by broadviewcollaborative.com

Lynn Broaddus, President of Broadview Collaborative, Inc. , Photo by broadviewcollaborative.com

Henderson’s proposal follows a recent foray into tapping Great Lakes state water reserves.

A Minnesota company floated the idea of shipping water from a Minnesota aquifer to Colorado via rail tanker for an undefined purpose.

Minnesota quickly responded that there was not a scenario for the request to be approved but it demonstrated that water-needy states are looking at ways to tap Great Lakes-region water.

At the time, veteran Great Lakes water activist Lynn Broaddus said this won’t be the last of the “profit-minded outsiders” who want to tap the region’s water. She urged Great Lakes governors to focus on updating the compact.

Henderson told Great Lakes Now that a convening of water managers, environmental groups and other interested parties would be a logical next step to look for creative ways to deal with rising lake levels.

“Pricing is the best way to get people to think about the value of water,” he said.

Featured Image: The Sun sets on Lake Michigan, courtesy of Russell Sekeet via flickr.com cc 2.0

Watch Great Lakes Now’s documentary on water withdrawals in the Great Lakes:



  1. Al Markiewicz 4 years ago

    Once sales are implemented what happens when lake levels return to normal?

    • St 2 years ago


  2. John M Goeke 4 years ago

    The cost of sending water out west would have an enormous infrastructure cost. In addition, great lake levels are cyclic. In low level periods, I doubt western states that have become dependent on the diverted water will be happy about having the spigot closed. I am skeptical of this proposal.

    • Gary Wilson 4 years ago

      John, your skepticism is warranted. To implement Prof. Henderson’s proposal would require the region to turn its conservation thinking upside down. But in the end his ask, as I understand it after talking with him at length, is for the region to take a critical look at water management to see if a market approach has benefits. Thanks for your comment. Gary Wilson

  3. Willie 4 years ago

    The story states, Illinois has financial problems. Yes of course, but it’s a SPENDING problem not a revenue problem.

    • Common_Sense 4 years ago

      Spot on!!! Wasn’t the Illinois lottery suppose to bail the State out of financial whoas? Illinois had problems paying the lottery winners. Lets give more funds to be mismanaged, while selling such a vital resource to bail out that behavior. And when water levels drop and financial issues still abound, continue to sell this resource to pay the bills?

      • Gary Wilson 4 years ago

        All good questions. I suspect there would be a water level where sales could not proceed. But again, Prof. Henderson wasn’t attempting to resolve all the issues, just “spark a conversation” and get comments like your’s. Thanks for contributing. Gary Wilson

    • Gary Wilson 4 years ago

      Thanks Willi for your comment. Illinois’ financial problems were used as an example of the type of issue that might be solved by selling Great Lakes water. I’m sure for Prof. Henderson’s proposal to proceed, there would be a robust discussion on how revenue from water sales could be used. Gary Wilson

  4. Gary Wilson 4 years ago

    Excellent question Al and one of many that would have to be resolved. As mentioned in the article, Prof. Henderson’s intent was to “spark a conversation” — to get people to think differently about water management. I think he knows there are significant barriers that would have to be overcome before Great Lakes water could be sold and while they may be insurmountable, they’re worth discussing. Thanks for weighing in. Gary Wilson

  5. Dave Masten 4 years ago

    I was raised to understand that when you have a problem you must look at what behavior or circumstances led to that problem (debt, lack of resources etc.) in order to resolve the dilemma. Bad debt? Look at spending, priorities and needs. Lack of resources? Look at past choices, responsible behavior and long-term sustainability. If Illinois is in debt, selling Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s share of Great Lakes water is no solution at all. If Texas is drying out, they need to look at past choices, non-sustainable water usage, activities that impact climate disruption and not running a huge garden hose up to Lake Michigan. Get real.

    • Gary Wilson 4 years ago

      Dave… I suspect most in the region share your sentiments. Something to think about. This country benefits from sharing resources. For example, California’s Central Valley produces much of the food abundance we enjoy but needs water to do it, which is in short supply there. Future generations in the Great Lakes region may have to think about water conservation and sharing as a moral v. a legal question. The time to start pondering that is now. Thanks for weighing in. Gary

    • DO 4 years ago

      We have trans-continental pipelines for oil, why is water so much different or more difficult? Most of these comments seem to assume the lakes’ water level will go back down eventually, but there is no guarantee of that, and what if it doesn’t? Record rainfall in the midwest over the last decade or two shows no signs of letting up. Climate change may very well have forced us into a “new normal” and be irreversible. Rather than throwing up our arms in defeat or spending comparable amounts of money on inadequate attempts at a solution, why not engineer a fix that kills two birds with one stone?

      • Matthew 2 years ago

        How much gas do you use in a week? How about water? Most likely it’s 20+ times as much.one 3ft pipeline may work for oil, but how about 20 of them for water?

      • St 2 years ago

        If diversion is approved, an ultimately irremediable decline in Great Lakes water levels is assured. The request for an economic discussion will obfuscate the serious national security risk that water diversion poses. First, economic valuation of a region-specific, vital resource as a basis for negotiation generally ends very badly for the resource-holder. Moreover, it makes neither environmental nor Great Lakes-aligned economic sense to further consumer demand by irrigating an historically desert region that lacks replenishment provisions. There is real risk of depleting the Great Lakes source, and no revenue return will restore it. Just ask residents of the Klamath Falls/Detroit Dam region in Oregon. Rather than divert precious and fragile resources to prop up an ill-fitting lifestyle, residents of those regions would better support the national economy and national security either by adopting a lifestyle commensurate with the arid climate or relocating to a more-hydrated part of the country.

  6. Stephan Corio 4 years ago

    A conservationist first and foremost, I believe extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We cannot afford to conduct business as usual in any area when the old systems and protections are irrelevant to our survival. We all know our shorelines and saturation levels are at record highs. I’m curious if the headwaters are still depleted, or if like the lakes, they are full and flowing now. Also, if you put the necessary legal safeguards in place, putting water flow and health from Michigan and other Great Lakes states first, then why shouldn’t we divert, help the country’s agriculture, e.g., NOT other commercially parasitic entities. Surely we have the brain power, human ingenuity and spirit to do more than concern ourselves with territories and pacts of the past. Our federal government, first and foremost, must set the bar high and tackle these huge infrastructure problems like during the Roosevelt Era. I would welcome a roundtable of all experts and even non-experts with creative vision to debate the problem and find solutions, cooperatively.

    • St 2 years ago

      One would like to think Roosevelt-era leadership could succeed in this arena. However, given the stupefying absence of congressional compromise and the historic low regard even for SCOTUS, I would not risk Great Lakes security on any business or government extraction scheme.

  7. Joe Bechtold..... Great Lakes Mariner 3 years ago

    O’K….think about this…..5.5 billion gallons per hour of water flows over Niagara Falls……..that flow can be controlled…..and a lot of that control at the falls is not for the upper lakes but for the St Lawrence Seaway shipping and Quebec flood control……money/ profit can do good things….like fight the infiltration of Asian Carp , lake shore erosion, hydro dams for green energy……the lake levels can be controlled……once again …….5.5 billion gallons per hour of water flowed over Niagara Falls……and you know what that potential revenue in the $$$$$$$ billions turns into …..SALT WATER !!!!!
    ” Surely we have the brain power, human ingenuity and spirit to do more than concern ourselves with territories and pacts of the past. “……..well said Stephan

    Let’s help our farmers out west ….America and the world needs them!!!!!

  8. Joe Bechtold..... Great Lakes Mariner 3 years ago

    O’K….think about this…..5.5 billion gallons per hour of water flows over Niagara Falls……..that flow can be controlled…..and a lot of that control at the falls is not for the upper lakes but for the St Lawrence seaway……money profit can do god things….like fight the infiltration of Asian Carp……the lake levels can be controlled……once again …….5.5 billion gallons per hour of water flowed over Niagara Falls……and you know what that potential revenue in the $$$$$$$ billions turns into …..SALT WATER

    • St 2 years ago

      The issue is not engineering ingenuity, rather the astonishing lack of integrity among negotiating parties or consideration for the dispossessed (check the headlines) that would sway any water-diversion scheme to the Great Lakes’ and the nation’s disadvantage.

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