Samuel de Champlain was searching for a route to China in 1615 when he paddled into Lake Huron. Certain he’d found the ocean, the French explorer scooped up a palm full of water and raised it to his lips. It was fresh. Disappointed–and puzzled, because he’d never seen a lake so large–Champlain named his discovery la mer douce, the sweet sea.

Huron and its sister lakes were a much more precious find than a trade route to Asia–they hold a fifth of the world’s freshwater. Looking out on the seemingly endless waters, Champlain wouldn’t have believed that people could ever diminish them. In his day, only 100,000 Indians lived around the lakes. Now 33 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, and we aren’t the only ones thirsting for its water. Bottlers want to sell it on supermarket shelves, western states talk about pipelines, and all across the midwest small towns with dry or polluted wells are begging to drink from the lakes. “Some people have said that wars will be fought over water,” says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation. “I think that’s a bit pessimistic, but in the future water will be more valuable than gold.”

In the old west, where ranchers quarreled over wells, there was a saying: “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” That’s true around the Great Lakes too.

For a long time the focus has been on outsiders who want water from the Great Lakes basin. When Perrier, the world’s most famous water vendor, came to Michigan’s Mecosta County in 2000 with a plan to tap a spring, some locals saw it as a plot to sell off the Great Lakes. Perrier wants to set up its pumps at a spring that feeds the headwaters of the Little Muskegon River, which flows toward Lake Michigan, and it plans to sell the water under the Ice Mountain label. “For a foreign company to come in here and make money for water, I am not for that,” says an indignant Terry Swier, a retired reference librarian who helped found Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to fight Perrier. “I believe that the water belongs to the state of Michigan and the citizens, and it’s all connected. It belongs to all of us.”

Perrier had looked to Michigan after a community in Wisconsin refused to trade its water for money. Officials in Mecosta County were eager to sell one of their natural resources in exchange for the 200 jobs the bottling plant promised. “We couldn’t be more happy about Ice Mountain coming to our community,” says Paul Griffith, president of the Mecosta County Development Corporation.

Perrier wants to pump 400 gallons a minute, but its hydrologists have assured the locals that the water table will replenish itself faster than Perrier can pump. Perrier also argues that plenty of companies have long shipped water out of state in their products, including fruit growers in Berrien Springs and brewers in Kalamazoo. “Many food and beverage products produced here in Michigan incorporate large amounts of water,” says Deborah Wudyka, a spokeswoman for Perrier. “Michigan, like many other states–its economy thrives on products that are consumed here and outside the basin.” Swier sees a difference. She says water is essential for life. Beer isn’t.

Michigan’s attorney general, Jennifer Granholm, worries that her state is moving too fast on the deal. Perrier has already received permits from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and has begun building its plant, but Granholm wants Governor John Engler to invoke the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, which requires all eight Great Lakes governors to approve any water diversion. “I am concerned that if you decline the opportunity for consultation in this case, you may send a signal that there will be little or no scrutiny of new or increased uses of Great Lakes water,” she wrote Engler last September. “This signal could trigger a massive water grab as users seek to remove Great Lakes water before such removals can be scrutinized.”

One of the massive water grabs states in the Great Lakes basin have been most worried about is the pipeline arid western states talked about building in the 1980s. That no longer seems likely anytime soon–it’s too expensive to pump water over the Rocky Mountains–but many politicians still live in fear of the possibility. The Great Lakes states lost nine congressional seats in the last census, some of them to California and Arizona, and they worry that all the people who left may vote to ship the water after them.

In 1985 this fear moved the governors to sign the Great Lakes Charter, a water protection pact that banned diversions that would have “significant adverse impacts” on the lakes. The next year, with the prodding of senators from Michigan and Ohio, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act, which made diversions impossible if any of the eight governors disapproved. Then four years ago a Canadian company called the Nova Group asked for permission to bottle water from Lake Superior and ship it to Asia. The province of Ontario said yes, but backed down when the rest of the basin governments protested. The “Nova incident” persuaded Great Lakes leaders that they needed even stricter laws to control diversions. Last June the governors joined with the premiers of Quebec and Ontario to sign a new agreement, Annex 2001, which makes it clear that the waters are a resource, not a commodity. Annex 2001 doesn’t prohibit diversions, but it sets a high bar. “Under the new binding agreement, a community has to show that there’s no significant adverse impact, and you have to show there’s an improvement to the water,” said Jeff Edstrom, then senior policy director at the Council of Great Lakes Governors, which is headquartered in Chicago. The council hopes to see the new regulations written into state, federal, and provincial law within three years.

Yet some water experts say the biggest threat to the lakes isn’t a raid by bottlers or desert states. It’s the growing thirst of the towns and cities in the Great Lakes basin. Environmentalists no longer worry about giant pipelines across the continent; they worry about “a lot of little straws” sipping the lakes until they shrink from their shores. And they’re concerned about the biggest straw of all–Chicago’s, which takes so much water it has permanently lowered the level of Lake Michigan by two inches.

The Great Lakes basin includes all of the land that drains into the lakes, an area that’s only a few miles wide in some places (the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan) but broad in others (Michigan’s entire lower peninsula). Even under the old rules, it was tough for anyone outside that boundary to suck a drop of water from the lakes. Lowell, Indiana, is just a few miles outside the basin. In 1992 the EPA discovered that excessive fluoride in Lowell’s well water was destroying the enamel on children’s teeth, so the village wanted to tap into Lake Michigan. Seven governors said yes; Michigan’s Engler said no.

Lowell had to dig new wells north of town. The water from them doesn’t have excessive fluoride, but it’s so hard and dingy it ruins dishwashers and water heaters. “Some people have water that looks like lemonade, and some looks like V8,” said Rick Dal Corobbo, Lowell’s director of administration. “It’s perfectly harmless, but it looks like heck. Although no one’s gotten sick from it, we sell a lot of bottled water here.” Worse, the wells are already drying up.

Hapless Lowell looks enviously at Crown Point, which is only ten miles away but can drink all the lake water it wants because it’s inside the Great Lakes basin. Lowell’s situation is so bad that local officials have decided to make another appeal to the governors. They were turned down in 1992 because they hadn’t looked at every other option for drinking water. Now they believe they have. Dal Corobbo promises to send Lowell’s wastewater back into Lake Michigan: “We will somehow, some way, find a way to put it back.”

New Berlin, Wisconsin, has the same problem as Lowell. Like many towns in eastern Wisconsin, it draws its water from a deep sandstone aquifer that’s being sucked dry faster than nature can refill it–New Berlin has grown by 10,000 residents in the last decade. As the water level drops, it gets more expensive to pump, and engineers are finding traces of radium in the water hauled up from the deeper levels. “Our water source is at a point where it has to be expanded,” says Mayor Ted Wysocki. “We either have to drill more wells or go to an alternate source of water.”

New Berlin is thinking of tying into Milwaukee’s water system, but the town straddles the edge of the Great Lakes basin, which is only a few miles wide in the area. That means getting permission from the governors. Wysocki argues that New Berlin will return all the water it takes out, because it’s joined to Milwaukee’s sewer system, which dumps treated wastewater into the lake.

Increasing demand is drying up the aquifers around the lakes–something this spring’s rains won’t change for long. “You’re seeing a lot of communities that are seeing their wells drain down,” says the Council of Great Lakes Governors’ Edstrom. “So in the next few years you may see more communities wanting Great Lakes water.” In Brown County, Wisconsin, nine villages are already negotiating to join Green Bay’s water system. Milwaukee now sells water to 13 suburbs, and 4 more want in.

Even if a town or city returns all of its wastewater to the lake, 5 percent of the water it takes is lost to evaporation, lawn watering, irrigation, and seepage through old pipes that carry the water. And the lakes are not a renewable resource. They are the meltwater from glaciers that scoured the upper midwest thousands of years ago. Only 1 percent of the water is the result of rain, surface-water runoff, and groundwater inflow. For the past few years the lakes have been so low that shipping companies have had to lighten their vessels’ loads so they wouldn’t scrape river and harbor bottoms. Some scientists believe the lakes, which were unusually high in the 80s, are simply at a low point in their cycle of rising and receding. Others contend that global warming is making it harder for the lakes to recharge themselves. That’s the opinion of John Fleming, professor emeritus of environmental health at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, who points out that as recently as the 60s and 70s, snow covered the land each November and ice covered much of the lakes, preventing evaporation. But, he says, “the lakes aren’t covered with ice like they used to be.”

Some environmentalists believe we could replenish the lakes by undoing the granddaddy of all diversions–the reversal of the Chicago River. The river was rerouted in 1900 because the million people along its banks were filling the torpid channel–“a sluggish, slimy stream, too lazy to clean itself,” one 19th-century observer called it–with waste. This flowing toilet fouled Lake Michigan, the city’s water supply, and in 1885, 90,000 people died after catching cholera from polluted drinking water. Chicago won the title “First City of Filth.”

Reversing the Chicago River wasn’t like reversing Niagara Falls. The river was unhurried and uncertain on its trip to Lake Michigan. Until around 10,000 BC it flowed on its own out of the lake. But as the glaciers receded, the land decompressed, and by the time Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet found the headwaters of the river, they were eight feet above lake level. Engineers dredged the riverbed, tilting it away from the lake, then dug a long trench–the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal–linking the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River. Like a mule returned to its old owner, the river placidly returned to its original course, flowing once again toward the Gulf of Mexico–and taking some of the Great Lakes with it.

The Chicago area wasn’t finished with lake-draining projects. In 1910 the North Shore Channel opened in Wilmette. A dozen years later the Cal-Sag Channel started sucking water through the Calumet River. By the 1920s Chicago was guzzling 8,700 cubic feet every second. Now we had clean drinking water, and barges could float between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes.

But other Great Lakes states were outraged by Chicago’s thirst. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, claiming the diversion was lowering Lake Michigan and Lake Huron by six inches. In 1938 the court told Illinois it could let up to 1,500 cubic feet per second flow into the Chicago River and on to the Sanitary Canal, and it could take as much water as it wanted for drinking. Twenty years later our neighbors sued again, demanding that Illinois cities on the lake return their treated sewage to Lake Michigan, just as Milwaukee and every other Great Lakes city did. The suit failed, but the amount of water Illinois could take for all purposes was set at a maximum of 3,200 cubic feet per second.

Half of that now runs into water pipes, half goes into the Chicago River. That amounts to 2.1 billion gallons a day–enough to fill more than 2,100 Olympic-size swimming pools. And the city still flushes its sewage down the Sanitary Canal and on into the Mississippi.

The rest of the basin is watching to make sure Illinois doesn’t take more water than the courts allow. In the 1990s our average intake went as high as 3,841 cubic feet per second, and the Army Corps of Engineers alerted the other Great Lakes states. After two years of mediation, Illinois agreed to make Chicago more watertight so that it would waste less of the water it takes. The city built a new wall across the mouth of the Chicago River, and the Corps of Engineers repaired leaky locks in the river. It also replaced leaky old pipes; every year now Chicago replaces about 1 percent of its ancient cast-iron, lead-joint pipes. As a consequence, even though the city’s population is rising, our water use is decreasing. In 1988, a drought year, we used 841 million gallons a day. Last year, we used 637 million gallons.

Reversing the river allowed Chicago to become a great city–6.7 million people can’t drink from a lake in which they urinate. But environmentalists say such a project would never be approved today, and they argue that modern sewage treatment makes it unnecessary. Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, would like to start a discussion about reversing the reversal. “I have not seen anyone definitely evaluate whether the reversal remains necessary,” she says. “A hundred years ago it made complete sense. Today freshwater is in short supply. We are using good, clean Lake Michigan water to flush the water and dilute pollution. My sense is there are better uses for the water–like drinking.”

Undoing the reversal is impractical, says Dan Injerd, who oversees Lake Michigan water use for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He believes it’s still vital to public health that the water that goes into our mouths comes from Lake Michigan, while the water that comes out the other end goes into the Mississippi–otherwise we’d be risking tainted drinking water and even more beach closings than we had last summer. The city’s wastewater is treated, he says, “but it’s still effluent.”

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the Chicago diversion is exempt from the Water Resources Development Act of 1986–so we don’t need other states’ permission to pump water outside the Great Lakes basin. That’s one reason Chicagoland has been able to spread so far across the prairie–even Plainfield, 30 miles beyond the watershed boundary, was recently granted a permit to tap into the lake through the metropolitan system. If we had to follow the same rules as everyone else, Plainfield and other supplicants in the collar counties would be begging for water. Not attractive to developers. “Without the availability of Lake Michigan water,” says Injerd, “this region would not be what it is today.”

No Illinois official is volunteering to give up this privilege, and everyone from the other states or provinces seems to accept the inequity as a done deal. But some environmentalists are insisting that, at the very least, people need to respect the basin’s boundary.

It may sound cruel–and when coming from Chicagoans, hypocritical–to tell people who live within a few minutes’ drive of the lake that they can’t drink the water. But a line must be drawn somewhere, and nature has drawn a boundary that makes more sense than state lines or city limits. Lowell and New Berlin are outside the basin as surely as Albuquerque. If Albuquerque can’t have water, why should they? This stingy attitude may kill the growth of some suburbs, but water has always determined where people can and can’t live. In the Great American Desert, between the 100th meridian and the Pacific slope, no state has a population larger than Cook County’s.

The Chicago diversion may be here to stay, says the Lake Michigan Federation’s Cameron Davis, but that’s no reason to allow more diversions. “It truly is us against us,” he says. “The biggest thing we have to worry about is the tremendous waste of water inside the basin. If Chicago alone can lower the lake level one or two inches, think about what all these [towns] can do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.