Paul Shugar

Publication Date



Great Lakes water fuels $4.2 trillion of gross-domestic product (“GDP”), making the Great Lakes Region the largest bi-national regional economy in the world. But what are the United States and Canada doing to protect the world’s largest readily available freshwater resource? The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement’s failures show that Canada and the United State must amend the outdated Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This amended treaty would provide a uniform approach to regulating the Great Lakes so the states and provinces on both sides of the border must play by the same rules regarding water withdrawals and diversions. Additionally, the amended treaty can provide uniform regulations regarding the growing bottled-water industry. Through specific examples, this Note will examine how the Great Lakes Agreement and the implementing legislation it spawned in both countries led to competition instead of cooperation regarding the resource. Next, the note will discuss how the Chicago River diversion and the Waukesha, Wisconsin, diversion request puts the United States and Canada on unequal footing regarding the consumption of Great Lakes water. Finally, this Note will discuss how the bottled-water industry might not be a threat to the Great Lakes yet, but the current regulations could allow the states and provinces to lose control of the resource under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT”) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”). This Note uses Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” to show that the United States and Canada share a commons in the Great Lakes. And like Hardin’s herdsmen tried to increase their number of cattle on the open pasture to maximize their personal returns from the resource, each state and province will attempt to increase their access to the Great Lakes to maximize that state’s or province’s economic benefits. Like the herdsmen’s unfettered freedom exhausted their open pasture, the bordering states and provinces could do the same with too much freedom to tap the Great Lakes. With the world already watching the decimation of freshwater resources such as Asia’s Aral Sea, Africa’s Lake Chad, and the United States’ Lake Mead, the Great Lakes could be next. One World Bank Study predicts that the global demand for freshwater will exceed supply by 40% as soon as 2030, and other scientists predict the Great Lakes could be bone dry in eighty years if freshwater extraction continues at the current global rate. With freshwater already becoming more valuable than oil, this Note provides a framework to ensure the Great Lakes, and the powerful regional economy it sustains, will be protected.