Are Great Lakes a Big Economic Advantage?


Denizens of the Great Lakes watershed long have looked at those five vast, deep, shimmering pools not only as an unmatched economic and cultural resource but also as the ultimate trump card.

Containing more than 20 percent of the entire world’s surface fresh water, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario comprise the globe’s biggest reservoir of what is arguably its most important natural resource. And that could come in handy, the argument goes, as water becomes scarcer in future decades, giving the Midwest a sort of regional economic advantage that is unduplicated in America – and anywhere else.

But not so fast. We may not be able to rely on the simple fact of geographically surrounding the Great Lakes as any kind of edge, even as other states and other countries enviously eye our storehouses of fresh water. And if government and private entities husbanding the Great Lakes don’t do a better job of preserving the quality of the water that fills them, it may not matter how much of it there is.

That’s the argument made, anyway, by John Robinson, co-founder and managing partner of Mazarine Ventures, a Chicago-based venture-capital firm that invests solely in startups attempting to solve pressing water and wastewater challenges.

Robinson agrees the presence of the Great Lakes is a huge attribute for the region. “In economic development, everyone always talks about how we have water and you don’t,” Robinson told me. “It’s a strong fundamental of the region to have water security.”

One indicator of the significance of the Great Lakes to Flyover Country is that working together on issues affecting the watershed is one of the very few areas in which state governments in the Midwest actually demonstrate regional cooperation. There’s no other way to do it, of course, but it’s a plus that the people running Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and the other states on the Great Lakes recognize the crucial importance of protecting and even enhancing this natural resource.

But Robinson knocks down the assumption that all the quadrillions of gallons of fresh water occupying the Great Lakes at any one time somehow can be leveraged to advance our region over others.

For one thing, Robinson said, its protectors need to do a much better job of ensuring that water reaching the Great Lakes from around the watershed is as pristine as possible and that it isn’t sullied once it gets to one of the lakes.

“What’s the point of an abundance of water if it’s of compromised quality?” he said. “Hello, Flint” – a reference to the lead poisoning of the municipal water supply in the mid-Michigan industrial city. “And with runoff from farms and nitrates in groundwater, all of our water can be totally useless.”

Second, Robinson said, there’s no significance alone in the fact that we have a lot of fresh water and other places don’t. “Water is really expensive to move, for one thing,” he said. “The conveyance of water to California, for example, would cost trillions of dollars a day.” It would be even more fantastical, he said, to imagine that Great Lakes water somehow could be provided to thirsty nations including Singapore.

At the same time, far-flung, reputationally waterless places like California aren’t as disadvantaged as you might assume, Robinson argued. “The California snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains could provide enough water for all of California,” he said.

But like most things in the Golden State, politics get in the way. The situation is similar to how mismanagement of forests is a huge contributor to a fire problem in California that is routinely blamed on climate change. The problem with water in California, Robinson said, is that state government hasn’t done a good job of disbursing aquatic resources to competing interests that range from the powerful growers of water-intensive tree nuts to water-parched Los Angeles.

Read the rest of this piece at Flyover Coalition.

Dale Buss is founder and executive director of The Flyover Coalition, a not-for-profit organization aimed at helping revitalize and promote the economy, companies and people of the region between the Appalachians and Rockies, the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes. He is a long-time author, journalist, and magazine and newspaper editor, and contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and many other publications. Buss is a Wisconsin native who lives in Michigan and has also lived in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida.