Great Lakes area draws world attention for food

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Climate change and population growth are making the Great Lakes region's role as a global food producer more important as water shortages become more severe in other parts of the world.

But even though some agribusinesses within this water-blessed region have growing concerns about future water availability, that message may be hard for area residents to fathom in the short-term because of an unusually long bout of thunderstorms this summer.

"The coming water crisis will affect everyone and everywhere, including everyone and every community in the Great Lakes region and basin," said Jim Olson, a Traverse City, Mich., water-rights lawyer.

The Great Lakes are positioned to become ground zero as water vanishes elsewhere. The region has long been viewed as one of the world's most abundant collections of fresh water and would be in a crucial position to adapt to a global water crisis.

The Great Lakes are North America's largest lakes by volume, holding 20 percent of all fresh surface water on Earth. Its 6 quadrillion gallons are enough to submerge the entire continental United States in 5 feet of water. They are the source of drinking water for 30 million Americans and 10 million Canadians.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is one of several public officials who have described the Great Lakes region as "the Saudi Arabia of water" in recent years, to underscore the point that water is becoming more valuable than oil in some parts of the world. She and others have noted that humans can live without oil, but not water.

Changing times

The lakes' usage has drawn more attention in recent years from politicians and legal scholars, such as those who attend the University of Toledo college of law's renowned Great Lakes water-law conference each fall. They have stated on numerous occasions that Great Lakes water-management laws pale in comparison to those of the American Southwest, where political battles over water rights have been fought for decades.

Scholars believe this region's legal framework is evolving into a stronger one as water controversies and more political battles heat up, as evidenced by intense negotiations that resulted in the Great Lakes region's first binding water-management compact.

The Great Lakes region has traditionally been less irrigated than others. But that, too, is changing.

Michigan and Ohio have had an uptick in irrigation permits the past two years, largely a result of the 2012 drought and concerns over weather becoming more unpredictable because of climate change.

"Farmers are just hedging against bad weather," Jim Hoorman, Ohio State University's cooperative extension agent in Putnam County, just southwest of Toledo, said of the greater interest in Great Lakes-area irrigation.

The long-term outlook has the potential to affect anything from shipping to recreation to water quality, potentially worsening western Lake Erie's algae as changing food markets worldwide prompt area land to be farmed more intensely.

"We are blessed in Ohio with water, but there is a need for a long-term strategy on [better] managing the resource," said Larry Antosch, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation senior director of policy development and environmental policy.

'Peak water'

The issue gained more traction recently following the publication of a major essay by Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute and author of a book on the global politics of food scarcity.

In his paper, Mr. Brown notes half of the world's population is in 18 countries that are water-stressed: They are pumping out aquifers faster than rain is replenishing them. That group includes the politically unstable Middle East but also China, India and the United States -- the world's top three food producers.

Mr. Brown theorizes that if the world has now reached what is known as "peak water" -- that point at which water will forever be used faster than it is replaced -- then the business of growing food will change because it will be more difficult to produce it in water-stressed areas.

"The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies," Mr. Brown wrote.

A magnet effect

One of the most water-stressed parts of the United States is the Great Plains region, where water is being depleted fast from the massive Ogallala aquifer by Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. As Great Plains wells dry up, farms in the Great Lakes region and other parts of the Midwest will be under greater pressure to produce, officials said.

"We are going to see and are already seeing water-intensive industries move back to the Midwest," said Jim Byrum, Michigan Agri-Business Association president.

One such industry is dairy farming.

Some California dairy farmers, frustrated by California's tighter water restrictions, have relocated to northwest Ohio and parts of Michigan.

Mr. Byrum also said some northern Michigan farmland taken out of production years ago is being used for agriculture again.

The Great Lakes region has gained about 10 growing days a year because of climate change. But that increase is offset by concerns about water, Mr. Antosch said.

Or, rather, water falling from the sky at the right time.

Extreme weather

Extreme weather events cause a mirage of water abundance. When there aren't extended droughts, like the one in 2012, there can be long bouts of thunderstorms, as there have been this summer.

Rain from quick, passing thunderstorms rolls fast off soil and into rivers and streams. Farmers need soft, all-day soakers that better penetrate soil, Mr. Antosch said.

Linda Weavers, professor and chairman of Ohio State's civil, environmental and geodetic engineering department, said farming more intensely could result in more nutrients and pesticides being used. That would "put a lot more stress on Lake Erie," said Ms. Weavers, co-director of the university's Ohio Water Resources Center.

Scientists are promoting research into cover crops as a way of trapping more water and keeping more nutrients on farms, Mr. Hoorman said.

"In order to grow crops, you need water. But you need the right amount," he said.

Chris Coulon, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman for Ohio, said that agency has a "healthy soils" campaign that promotes the water-holding capacity of dirt.

Great Lakes states have had less frost and ice because of climate change.

Less frost allows more pests to survive. That can lead to a greater use of pesticides and poorer water quality if chemicals get washed off land by rain, Mr. Antosch said.

Less ice means year-round evaporation of the lakes, which leads to lower lake levels. That leads to higher shipping costs.

Managing water

Water management is the focus of a regional water compact the eight Great Lakes states settled on after years of negotiations, following a Canadian firm's 1998 attempt to ship Lake Superior water to Asia in tankers. Representatives of the agricultural community said they plan to keep a close eye on it to see if it is effective enough at protecting water resources for food production.

"The compact is the right context to frame this in," said Howard Reeves, a scientist in the U.S. Geological Survey's Michigan Water Science Center.

Brent Lofgren, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., said many of the global impacts raised by Mr. Brown's paper are more closely associated with symptoms of human-induced stress than climate change.

Earth's current population of 7.2 billion people is twice what it was in the mid-1960s. It is expected to exceed 10 billion people later this century.

China and India are using more water because they have become more modernized societies, with more energy production and automotive use.

"Higher standards of living require more land and more resources. That is very real pressure," said John Bartholic, director of the Michigan State University Institute of Water Research. "What Les Brown talks about is real. We're [using] too much water. We've all got to work together on this."

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Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tom Henry is a reporter for The Blade.


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