An Opportunity for a Commons Approach - or How Water Wars May Begin

A story playing out across the Great Lakes makes it clear that we can't make decisions locally and individually--we need to make them as a commons, and share the decision-making process with all those involved.

A small wealthy suburb in Wisconsin wants to draw on Lake Michigan for drinking water, but has failed to see that water is held in a larger commons--one that includes all of those who depend on that water in the entire bio-region.

Although extracting the water from the lake for the community, whose aquifer is running out of fresh water, would be "the equivalent of taking a teaspoon of water out of an Olympic-sized swimming pool" (as the general manager of the local water utility said), if each community does so we will continue to the lakes shrink. Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, chair of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, recognizes the issue. "We're already looking at low water levels in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron. And those levels are really having an effect on all kinds of things."

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs. (Canadian Press)

The situation has also upset nearby communities who are not on the shores of the Great Lakes and who wonder how they will sustainably draw water in the future. "Where do you draw the line," Hobbs asked. "I could see water wars coming if [we don't resolve the issue]."

Perhaps this case will help awaken more people to the need for a commons approach to the waters. We are all connected through the Great Lakes, and we need to embrace shared use, shared stewardship, and shared governance in our relationship to the waters.