Imagine a huge, blue body of water, white sandy beaches, waves crashing onshore and kids playing in the sand. You might be tempted to think of an ocean scene, but I’m talking about a typical July day on any of the Great Lakes. Sans the salty smell and the abundant sea life, the Great Lakes support a large tourist business, a busy shipping industry and are responsible for more than 1.5 million jobs in the U.S. and $62 billion in wages every year.
Together the lakes contain six quadrillion gallons of fresh water (one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water). If that amount were spread evenly over the U.S., our entire country would be submerged under more than nine feet of water, or North America, South America and Africa would be covered by a foot of water. You can even see the Great Lakes from space.
Unless you live near the Great Lakes states or have visited on vacation, you probably don’t give much thought to the huge bodies of water that border Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. If you have only seen smaller lakes, you probably can’t comprehend a lake that you can’t see across, or one that is 1,300 feet deep.
Given that staggering amount of fresh water, it is tempting to think how it could be used elsewhere. Regions across the country and around the world experiencing water shortages are hungrily eying the lakes, as well as companies who want to use the water for commercial purposes. Nestle has consumed water from the lakes for years to make its Ice Mountain bottled water despite Michigan’s legal efforts to oust the company.
Despite these statistics, the Great Lakes are not bottomless. A recent U.S. Geological Survey reports that even local human use combined with climate change are affecting these giants. It shows that Chicago diverts 2.1 billion gallons every day, reducing the levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron by 2.5 inches. Warmer temperatures have caused less ice to form, accelerating evaporation rates leading to lower lake levels. This can cause shipping inlets to become too shallow and the need for them to be dredged for ships to deliver iron ore and other goods.
As climate change continues to move relentlessly forward, water will become an even more precious resource. Organizations like the International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Commission have put guidelines like the Great Lakes Compact in place to regulate the consumption of water and conserve the water from the lakes for future generations.
It’s important to preserve this huge reservoir of fresh water so it’s there when we need it in the future. And for those of us who have grown up playing in their depths, watching the sun set over their western shores and who know each of their unique personalities, we want our children to know the lakes, too. If you are in the area this summer, come on over. Walk in the sand, swim in the waves, and sail along the coast. See what we’re trying to save.
Image Credits: Jim’s outside photos; Sauble Resort in Google images; Aviation Spectator in Google images