Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 3, 2009

R-E editorial decries water diversion


Record-Eagle concern about Great Lakes water diversion dates to the early 1900s, including a Jan. 14, 1925, editorial about the U.S. government's challenge of Chicago's right to divert Lake Michigan water without consulting its neighbors.

Environmental attorney Jim Olson calls the 1900 Chicago water diversion an "artifact" in the history of Great Lakes water issues. It was the first major withdrawal.

Its history started with the mid-1800s construction of the Illinois and Michigan Ship Canal to allow boats to sail from the Great Lakes into the Chicago River to the Mississippi River. The canal became known as the "Chicago diversion" in 1900 after the City of Chicago -- plagued by deadly typhoid outbreaks -- reversed the flow of the Chicago River to flush its sewage inland rather than into Lake Michigan.

In 1925, the federal government challenged Chicago's right to divert water without consulting U.S. and Canadian neighbors. Several Great Lakes states filed suits alleging potential economic loss. The lawsuits led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1926 that, with the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, helped set the stage for U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes water policies.

A 1925 Record-Eagle editorial

Whose Are the Great Lakes!

The decision of the United States Supreme Court against Chicago's diversion of 10,000 cubic feet of water per second from Lake Michigan through the drainage canal, declaring it illegal, is a more important one than many citizens have realized.

Chicago has been taking this tremendous amount of water to aid it in the disposal of its sewage. It has been shown that the withdrawal of so much water from Lake Michigan has lowered the level of all the Great Lakes except Superior as much as six inches, seriously affecting shipping.

The supreme court points out that this is a matter not of local welfare and convenience, but of national and international import. Chicago's claim that the United States has no right to determine the amount of water that shall flow through the canal or the manner of its flow, is therefore denied. In the report ready by Chief Justice Taft, the court declares:

"This is not a controversy between equals. The United States is asserting its sovereign power to regulate commerce and the control of navigable waters within its jurisdiction. It has a standing in this suit not only to remove obstructions to interstate and foreign commerce, but also to carry out our treaty obligations to a foreign power bordering upon some of the lakes concerned and, it may be, also on the footing of an ultimate sovereign interest in the lakes."

Americans in general are too inclined to think of the Great Lakes as our lakes, with little regard to Canada. Citizens of lake cities think of the lake on which they happen to be situated as theirs instead of a possession shared with all the other communities and states along its border. The supreme court's decision should remind everybody that the lakes are no one's private property -- and the same reasoning applies to the navigable lakes and streams throughout the country.