Crain’s Chicago Business
Thirsty businesses and unsustainable groundwater use by agriculture pose the biggest threats to the Midwest’s water supply.
Is this the Midwest’s future? Whenever I come to the Midwest for a talk, I usually display a slide of the billboard and then scold the audience: It’s preposterous to think that we in the Southwest want to divert all the water in the Great Lakes. We’d settle for just one of the smaller ones.
Some audiences laugh; others don’t.
The real threat faced by the Great Lakes states is a regional one.
The 2008 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact prohibits most diversions out of the Basin. But recent controversies, including Nestle’s bottled water operation in Michigan and a Foxconn proposal in Wisconsin to divert 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan to manufacture LCD screens, demonstrate that the compact does not provide iron-clad protection for the basin.
Another local, and even more pernicious, threat to the region comes from groundwater pumping.
In the face of recent droughts, farmers across the Midwest have drilled thousands of new high-capacity wells. Since the 2012 drought, Illinois farmers have installed almost 1,000 center-pivot systems. Agricultural irrigation in Illinois uses about the same amount of water as 2 million people. As important, it’s a new kind of use in the Midwest, where farmers traditionally dryland farmed.
Water law in Illinois, as in most Midwestern states, governs groundwater with the reasonable use doctrine, an oxymoron because it allows use of an unlimited quantity of groundwater for virtually any purpose.
Think of groundwater as a giant milkshake glass, and think of a well as a straw in the glass. Illinois allows an unlimited number of straws in the glass, which is utterly unsustainable. An Illinois law was supposed to require well owners to report their pumping by 2015. As of this month, no one knows how many wells there are or how much water they pump.
Despite its abundant water resources, the Midwest faces serious problems. The crisis in Flint, Mich., exposed how communities across the United States have failed to fund essential maintenance and modernization of their water and wastewater systems.
Municipal water providers understand the problems, but they find it hard to generate political support for spending millions or billions of dollars on water infrastructure.
Alas, most of us take water for granted. When we wake up in the morning and turn on the tap, out comes as much fresh water as we want, for less than we pay for cellphone service or cable television.
When it comes to addressing critical water problems, the business community has been strangely on the sidelines. Except for the food and beverage industries, for which water is a critical input, most companies sign up with the local water provider and, after that, never again worry about water.
The Business Roundtable’s August 2019 “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” provides an opportunity for the business community to re-examine its role in water issues. Companies can display leadership by becoming engaged in local, regional and national water policy issues that affect not only their bottom line but also the health and vitality of their stakeholders and communities.
View this article at: Crain’s Chicago Business