As we progress beyond peak oil and the world finds itself having to reinvent and adapt to a low energy existence once again, one of the key focal points is going to have to be rethinking community. At the moment we, at least we in the developed world, have the unrealistic and historically unique luxury, because of our energy-dependent technology, of not having to concern ourselves on a day-to-day basis about the source of the water we use. Once we pass peak oil, however, and readily-available, cheap energy becomes a thing of the past, all issues dealing with water will become critical to our very survival. They will also become increasingly and restrictively local.
The Great Lakes shared by the U.S. and Canada is the largest single depository of fresh water on the planet. It contains a full one fifth of the fresh surface water in the world. With the St Lawrence Seaway system ocean-going ships can navigate nearly 2500 miles inland to Thunder Bay at the middle of the continent. Both the US and Canada have built up their industrial and manufacturing heartland along the shores of the Great Lakes.
Managing flow levels
The water levels in both the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River are maintained by a significant amount of man-made technology and infrastructure. Principally Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence flow control is achieved through a series of three dams;
1) the international Moses-Saunders Hydro-Electric Dam at Cornwall Ontario and Messina New York,
2) the Long Sault Dam at Long Sault, Ontario which acts as a spillway when outflows are larger than the capacity of the power dam, and
3) the Iroquois Ice Dam at Iroquois, Ontario which is principally used to help form a stable ice cover and regulate water levels at the power dam.
There are also a number of additional dikes, levies and flood control channels and canals such as the 17km Beauharnois Canal which bypasses the Soulanges rapids and carries 84% of the water flow of the river to the Beauharnois power station.
The focus in and objective of all of this technology and infrastructure, however, has been to maintain the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes as a viable shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and the lake head. This is to facilitate and speed the outbound distribution to the world's customers of crops, particularly grains, from North America's agricultural heartland, and for outflow of manufactured goods from the industrial and manufacturing heartland built up along the shores of the Great Lakes.
Great Lakes as a source of potable water
The importance of the Great Lakes as a source of clean, fresh water has largely been ignored. Not because it isn't important. It has been ignored because of the vastness of the lakes themselves. We have cavalierly acted as though the lakes are so huge that we could not possibly pollute them to the point that they were unusable as a source of potable water. Only recently have we woken up not only to that possibility but that reality.
International Joint Commission
The International Joint Commission (IJC) established by the governments of the United States and Canada is charged with oversight responsibility for boundary waters shared by the two nations, most importantly including the Great Lakes/St Lawrence basin. It is arguably a model for international water rights agreements and control mechanisms. Part of their mandate is to, through controlling the flow through these various facilities, "regulate Lake Ontario within a target range from 74.2 to 75.4 metres (243.3 to 247.3 feet) above sea level." This involves, unfortunately, a number of variables over which the IJC has no control;
* Global warming is already causing a slight rise in global sea levels and is expected to cause significant rises in sea levels over the coming century, particularly with the anticipated partial or complete melt of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap. Does the IJC then continue to maintain Lake Ontario water levels relative to rising sea levels or does it "fix" the sea level relative to which Lake Ontario levels are maintained?
* Global warming could, additionally, have serious impact over rainfall and snow levels over the Great Lakes basin and the full area that drains into the basin. In this past decade alone precipitation levels in the region have changed significantly. Although the IJC charter allows for significant changes in future weather patterns and inflows, the specifics of how the IJC will respond have not been spelled out.
* The Great Lakes basin drains nearly half a continent. The IJC has no jurisdiction over rivers and tributaries feeding the Great Lakes basin which are wholly contained within either the U.S.A. or Canada, a significant shortcoming of the existing IJC mandate. These waterways, and any infrastructure on them that could affect Great Lakes inflow, fall under the jurisdiction of a hodge-podge of state, provincial, federal, county and municipal governments and their agencies.
* Controlling the levels of Lake Ontario does not automatically control the flow through the St. Lawrence. That is dependent on inflows to the Great Lakes. But St. Lawrence river levels are also affected by other major inflows downstream from the control infrastructure, such as the Ottawa River and Richelieu River.
Post-Peak Infrastructure maintenance
Worrisome from a post Peak oil perspective is the long-term viability and maintenance of this massive water-control infrastructure. This concern has been expressed by the IJC itself. In a recent IJC report entitled Unsafe Dams? the IJC stated "In recent years, the Commission has reviewed the terms of some of its Orders of Approval for the construction of such structures. It has become aware that some of its Regulated Facilities are in need of repair and that some existing programs have not ensured that these repairs were made. ..... Existing legislation, regulations, practices and government oversight are insufficient to ensure that Regulated Facilities are safe." Specifically included in this concern are the three dams through which Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River water levels are managed.
These facilities have now been in existence for several decades. This presents an obvious concern which the IJC have echoed, "Some Regulated Facilities were built early in the century. With aging facilities, maintenance programs are an absolute necessity. Continuing maintenance programs are being implemented in some cases. Monies that owners budget for maintenance work are, however, sometimes not spent." In the case of the U.S. portion of the Moses/Saunders hydroelectric facility, much of the electricity generated is sold off to two key industries; the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Motors Corporation (GM Powertrain). Most of the rest is sold off at cost to electric supply utilities across New York State. Should either or both of ALCOA or GM fail (GM's survival is even now in serious question again as a consequence of the 2008 global recession), considering that maintenance and inspection are even now questionable, where will the economic motivation be to maintain the facility?
It is important to note that, at this time, the Canadian Federal government and the Ontario Provincial government have no established Dam Safety Program, though the Ontario Government is said to be working on one. Many of the major river systems feeding into Lake Ontario and the rest of the Great Lakes are controlled by a series of dams. The Trent River system feeding into Lake Ontario at Belleville/Trenton is a good example. In the lower reaches of the Trent River alone, from Frankford down to the Bay of Quinte, there are more than half a dozen major dams. Each of these dams holds back from 30 feet of water or more. Should any one of these dams fail, especially a dam further upstream, the volume of water released would simply inundate any dams further downstream, possibly leading to a domino/cascade collapse of dam after dam (see my article; Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams). The impact on Belleville, Trenton and all of the low-lying areas of Prince Edward County would be devastated.
Whether the Ontario Government is working on establishing a Dam Safety Program is, of course, a moot point in the face of a pending peak in global oil production and the potential severe impact on the global, American and Canadian economies. All dams, especially as they age, require significant ongoing maintenance and regular inspection. This is particularly so in a cold climate such as that in the Great Lakes basin with its severe seasonal variations and stresses on infrastructure, particularly dams. Whether the funds for inspecting and maintaining such infrastructure will be available in a collapsing economy is a reasonable question. Whether what funds are available will be spent on the appropriate inspection and maintenance is just as fair a question. Maintenance is always one of the first things to suffer when budgets get tight. There's no profit in maintenance.
In my article The myth of permanence: post-peak infrastructure maintenance, I explored the potential of future infrastructure maintenance problems on a broad range of societal infrastructure. Nowhere, in my opinion, is this more critical than with regard to dams and other water management infrastructure. The Great Lakes contain a full 18% of the total surface freshwater on the planet. All of that water is kept in check by hundreds of dams controlling both outflow and inflow. That is a tremendous amount of aging infrastructure that will need increasing amounts of energy-intensive maintenance to remain viable. The energy that was available during the era when all that infrastructure was built won't be available when it all has to be replaced or decommissioned. The results could be catastrophic.
Post-Peak use of the Great Lakes as a source of Drinking Water
As we progress beyond peak oil the importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway as an inland route for ocean-going ships will diminish drastically and, eventually, disappear. Ocean shipping is critically dependent on oil and other fossil fuels. Even recently, with the 2006-2008 rapid escalation in the price of oil the amount of trans-oceanic shipping declined dramatically. Once we start down the serious downslope in global fossil fuel supply trans-oceanic shipping will decline to a very expensive trickle. Traffic on the Great Lakes will become increasingly local and alternatively powered. We might even see the re-emergence of the freight canoe.
The importance of the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water for drinking and agricultural irrigation will, however, increase at the same time as life becomes more localized. It is probable the population growth along the shores of the Great Lakes will continue with an increased inflow of people wanting to be near a large, strong, reliable source of fresh water.
But the continued reliability of the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water should not be an assumption but rather a responsibility of those placing their reliance on it. The massive mechanical pumping systems that deliver that water from the lakes to nearby communities will either cease to function or have to be converted to an alternative power source. The massive sewage and water treatment plants that clean the waste from the massive communities along the Great Lakes shores before the cleansed water is released back into the lakes will either cease to function or have to be converted to some sustainable alternate power source. And the massive infrastructure that manages the inflow to and outflow from the Great Lakes will have to continue to be maintained or gradually and carefully decommissioned. Doing all of this without the cheap, abundant energy that we have come to take for granted will be a tremendous post-peak undertaking.
The inflow of toxins to the Great Lakes system will, fortunately, decline with the decline of fossil-fuel-driven industrialization. Over time the Great Lakes will cleanse themselves of those toxins. Until that time, however, continued care will have to be taken in the use of water from the lakes for sustenance and irrigation. The need to maintain lake levels for shipping may diminish but allowing lake levels to drop significantly increases the dangerous concentration of the built up toxins in the water used. The technologies and energy required to adequately filter and clean the water before it is used will, at best, be scarce and expensive.
Delivering that water any distance from the shores of the lakes is going to be a growing problem as energy supplies diminish. Great Lakes water is today often delivered by pump and pipeline hundreds of miles away from the lakes themselves. There is little likelihood of being able to continue this practice for very long into the future. Gravity is the low-energy system for moving water from one place to another. Gravity won't move water uphill. How will we move water to the top of 30, 40, 50 storey buildings with energy-dependent mechanical pumps?
Taken for Granted
Once we pass peak oil - realistically it should be the case today - we can no longer take for granted the availability and delivery of water, no matter the source of that water. It is not uncommon in dry, third-world countries for people to have to walk 5, 10 or more miles each day and carry home the water they need for their daily usage. You develop strategies, under such circumstances, to minimize your water usage.
As a boy I had to carry the family's daily water from a hand pump two blocks away on a neighbour's property. Two blocks was close enough I often made multiple trips per day, carrying two large buckets, one in each hand. Baths were taken in a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor with water from the rain barrels (melted snow in winter) heated on the large, kitchen wood stove. Believe me, I learned not to take water for granted and I can still connect to those feelings today of the importance and preciousness of water. It is a lesson that, as we pass peak oil and industrialized water systems become increasingly unreliable, that we are all going to learn. It will be a very difficult lesson for most.