Water (Civil) Wars?

Great Lakes from Space
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Dr. Daniel Macfarlane is an Assistant Professor in the Freshwater Science and Sustainability program in Western Michigan University’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. He is the author or co-editor of published books on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and US-Canada border waters, and forthcoming books on the International Joint Commission and the manipulation of Niagara Falls. Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


Since the turn of the 20th century, phrases like “water wars” and “water is the new oil” have become so oft-repeated that they are virtually truisms. Recognition of the accelerating impacts of climate change has only intensified worries about transborder water problems.

Transborder water issues are valid concerns: Line 5 and invasive species are at the top of water worries in Michigan, and the 2008 Great Lakes Compact is meant to prevent death by a thousand straws. My own research focuses on the transnational aspects of water infrastructure in the Great Lakes, particularly the ways the United States and Canada have remade rivers like the Niagara and St. Lawrence for hydropower and navigation, or diversions and attempts to alter water levels on the sweetwater seas.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether a focus on international water conflicts, or framing water as a resource akin to oil, have had some sneaky and pernicious downsides. 

The “water is the new oil” trope creates a false equivalency between water and oil. Oil isn’t necessary for human or planetary life. Water is not comparable to oil, nor should it be privately controlled and commodified. Furthermore, if you think about it, all the predictions about “water wars” haven’t really come true (at least not yet, thankfully).

Granted, that may be precisely because so many folks have been paying attention and trying to prevent such conflicts. But all the emphasis on international water wars has, arguably, led us to ignore the water conflicts – and crimes – that happen within, not across, borders. Not over there, but here. Not just in arid areas, but in those with water abundance. Hence the use of “civil” in the title of this post – not to invoke respect and politeness, but battles between citizens.

We’re so used to worrying about water quantity – i.e., diversions – that we can forget that we can create water scarcity not only through consumptive use, but by threatening water quality. Just take Michigan: sitting in the heart of the greatest freshwater system on earth, yet many of its inhabitants are justifiably scared to drink their tap water. Just in the last few years, the Great Lakes state has experienced many water traumas. Detroit water shut-offs. The Flint Water Crisis. Nestle bottling groundwater for virtually nothing (about two hours away from Flint no less, where they were paying the nation’s highest prices for the nation’s most dangerous water). And now PFAS.

Obviously, the Flint crisis is in a league of its own. But water problems bedevil many communities, and we are too prone to thinking it can’t happen in my community. Throw a dart at a map of Michigan, and there is a decent chance you’ll hit a water problem. 

In my neck of the woods, Kalamazoo, we have had many serious water issues as of late. The eponymous river is a Superfund site from a long history of papermaking, and we’re still in the midst of remediation. And in 2010 the river was the recipient of one of the largest inland oil spills in American history. Just within the last year or two, we have experienced record flooding. And now PFAS contamination is rearing its toxic head in places all along the Kalamazoo River. 

We need to remain vigilant about external threats to water, but we can’t become passive about internal threats. The passage of the 2008 Great Lakes Compact is a great and necessary thing – yet I’m more worried about consumptive uses in the basin than I am about Ogallala aquifer states coming for Great Lakes water. I’m much more worried about what Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin are doing to water in the Great Lakes basin – and to each other – than I am about California or Arizona sucking water from Lake Superior. The Chicago Diversion alone is an abomination, a ticking time bomb that we are seemingly powerless to stop because of the craven cowardice of certain special interests and officials. 

Dr. Daniel MacFarlane, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

Local governments have failed to protect us. With water so central to life on this spinning globe – for us and for the rest of the living world – water concerns must be grounded in law, history, policy, economics, and ethics.

We need a committed return to the public trust doctrine, the legal principle that water is to be held “in trust” by the state for the benefit of the people. And a good place to start is with FLOW’s recently proposed model water legislation to protect Michigan’s waters by: affirming public ownership of water, protecting against water privatization, and if we are going to allow bottled water, then recoup royalties.


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