Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Influencing an Ecosystem

My mother was born in Hamilton Ontario, and when I was a kid, most of her family still lived there. I spent many Sundays in the back seat of a ’53 Buick driving through Niagara Falls, New York, past the Love Canal area (topic for another day), across the bridge at Lewiston or Queenston into Canada and up the QEW to Hamilton.

Often at the Welland Canal, we had to stop to wait for a ship to go through the locks. In those days there was no overhead bridge as there is now, and we would watch the drawbridge slowly go up, watch the ship slowly move through the canal, then watch the bridge slowly come back down. Fortunately, for us, there was Savages. Savages was a hamburger joint right on the banks of the canal. My mouth still waters when I think of those juicy hamburgers. They were the saving grace of having to wait at the canal.

I never knew the Welland Canal was a “diversion”. A diversion is a transfer of water from one watershed to another. I had no idea what a watershed was. I did know that ships had to use the Canal because they couldn’t use the Niagara River to travel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. There is a pretty big obstacle in the river preventing passage. But other than that the canal was just another landmark on the way to visiting my cousins.

Even now that I know about diversions and watersheds, I still don’t think of the Welland Canal as a major influence on the Great Lakes Basin. It was built to facilitate shipping. It doesn’t take water away from the lakes, it simply reroutes it, unlike the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which reroutes the water so much it never gets back into the Great Lakes.

Water diversion can be into, within or out of the basin. Several diversions such as at the Welland Canal and around cities such as Detroit, Hamilton, and London Ontario provide municipal water and return the treated water back to the basin. Other diversions take water from rivers and put them into the basin, such as the Ogoki and Long Lac where water flows into Lake Superior. The Great Lakes Water Institute has a nice summary on the topic of diversion.

Chicago has one of the most well-known diversions out of the Great Lakes Basin. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built to clean up the filth from the Chicago stockyards that polluted the Chicago River and made it a public health nightmare. The canal took the water away from Chicago, into the Des Plaines River, to the Illinois River, then to the Mississippi, where it eventually flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. The city of St Louis protested the reversal, but not loud enough or fast enough, and on January 2, 1900, the river’s direction was reversed.

As time went on more and water was diverted from the basin, and not just to clean up the muck. Communities all around Chicago wanted to buy water for their expanding population. My family and I lived in Naperville, Illinois in DuPage County west of Chicago for 20 years. I well remember when Naperville changed from well water to Lake Michigan water in the 1990’s. Our water tasted better, and we no longer needed a water softener. There were still restrictions on water use in the summer and the cost went up, but we thought it was worth it. It never occurred to me that I was influencing a huge ecosystem by drinking such good water.

Two other major diversions of water out of the basin are in my own backyard. One is to Pleasant Prairie, which I think of as a suburb of Kenosha. The other is to Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. All three of these diversions have occupied legal professionals for decades.

What is the effect of diverting water from the basin? Why does it affect the ecosystem? That’s what I need to learn. I am going to spend this afternoon reading more about it. Great Lakes Blogger David Dempsey wrote about Waukesha yesterday if you want to check out his comments about that situation.

Before I begin my reading, I plan to get some lunch. What I really want is to drive to Savages. I would eat slowly while watching the big freighters ooze slowly through the narrow Canal. That would be such a treat, but I will have to settle for something from closer to home, like a cheese sandwich, made from Wisconsin cheese, of course.

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