Peter Annin is the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, an authoritative volume on the battles being waged between interests with a thirst to extract fresh water from the Great Lakes and those who are laboring to craft a Great Lakes Compact as a step toward preserving their freshwater legacy for future generations.
At stake: one-fifth of the world's surface freshwater reserves. At risk: a catastrophe comparable to the one that has befallen Central Asia's Aral Sea -- once the world's fourth-largest lake, but a body of water that has lost more than three-fourths its surface area and volume since 1960 due to diversion of its source waters for irrigation.
A former Newsweek correspondent, Annin is now the associate director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. He is scheduled to appear at the 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival with emerita UW-Madison history Prof. Margaret Beattie Bogue (author of Around the Shores of Lake Superior: A Guide to Historic Sites and Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History) at noon Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Madison Public Library's Main Branch.
The Daily Page: How did you muster the courage to embark on an undertaking as ambitious as The Great Lakes Water Wars? And how did you sustain your commitment through any periods of doubt you might have confronted while researching and writing it?
Annin: Several years ago, when I started gathering string for the project, I was surprised to learn that no one had ever written a book about the Great Lakes water diversion controversy. Given that water diversion is such an emotionally polarizing topic here -- sort of the "spotted owl" issue of the Great Lakes region -- I found it odd that no one had ever put it all together in a book. By that time, negotiations over the Great Lakes water compact were just getting off the ground. I figured once the compact was released there would be a rush for knowledge about the water diversion issue and so I decided that now would be as good a time as ever to crank out a book on the subject.
The fact that it was a deadline book helped keep me focused. Reporting and writing 300 pages of nonfiction in three years -- while one has a full-time job -- is not recommended behavior. But the more I dug, the more colorful the water history turned out to be, so the reporting kept me going as much as anything. It's a lot of fun to uncover unknown or long-forgotten tales of intrigue, Machiavellian gamesmanship and bumbling political maneuvers.
How did researching and writing The Great Lakes Water Wars affect the way you live? What changes has it induced in your routine daily behaviors?
Water conservation has become a regular topic at the family dinner table. We have cut our household water use by quite a bit over the years -- so much so that the water department called to say they thought our meter was malfunctioning. (It wasn't.) That said, everyone in the family admits we still have a long way to go in curbing our water use further.
In terms of personal behaviors, advocacy and education, what three things can people do as individuals that might be most effective in contributing toward preservation of the Great Lakes as a legacy?
First they can make it very clear to their local, state and federal politicians that the Great Lakes are an extremely high priority in their lives. Our region is defined by an abundance of water, much like mountains define the American West. None of us should ever forget that -- or take it for granted -- especially not our elected officials.
Second, people should literally get involved. If there is a public hearing about a Great Lakes issue, they should stop by. And if the spirit moves them while they are at the hearing, they should take the microphone and speak their mind.
Third, take a kid to the Great Lakes, tell him/her how globally significant the lakes are. I like to say that we live next to the Himalayas of Water, yet because we are so close to these wonderful water bodies we often fail to realize how globally significant they are. Get out and enjoy them. Swim, boat, fish, relax on the beach … whatever. Lap it up. Have a great time.
How can advocates for protecting the Great Lakes convince the world that these waters are not a commodity to be squandered?
By making sure their voice is heard, loud and clear, and by making sure we speak as a region, not as series of fractured states, provinces, organizations, etc.
But this is not just an issue for advocates; it's also an issue for Great Lakes businesses, communities, and citizens who depend on Great Lakes water for their livelihoods. We're all in this together.
Why should the Great Lakes come under regional control instead of, say, United Nations jurisdiction?
If you put control over the lakes into the hands of thirsty people, then the lakes are bound to lose. If we lose regional control of the resource it will be the beginning of the end.
How can the complexity of diversions and other threats to the Great Lakes be broadcast in ways that are understandable to stakeholders and rally them to something approaching an effective defense of the resource? Who bears responsibility for educating the public?
The public bears the responsibility of educating itself. Water can be an intimidating topic at times, but we are leaving the century of oil and entering the century of water, so in coming decades people are going to learn more about water than they ever imagined. Whether you are involved in business, the environment, or public policy, water will be the defining issue of the next century.
What methods did you use to divorce your own emotions from your reporting in The Great Lakes Water Wars and prevent them from overwhelming some semblance of objectivity? -- particularly in situations such as your first-hand visit to see what little is left of the Aral Sea?
Throughout my journalistic career I have found that a balanced approach is the best approach. When you are trying to capture the attention of as many people as possible, it's really the only way to go. But you are right, few things have challenged my journalistic objectivity more than my visit to the Aral Sea.
While you were working on The Great Lakes Water Wars, who did you envision as the audience for the book? And how has the audience at your readings compared to the one you anticipated?
From the beginning I always envisioned the audience being the average, educated, politically engaged Great Lakes citizen. And that's exactly who has been turning out for my talks. After all, the water wonks know all this stuff already. (But they've been attending my talks too.) But it's the general public that has been thirsting the most for knowledge about the Great Lakes -- especially knowledge that is delivered in an understandable way.
To what extent does your Wisconsin Book Festival pairing with Margaret Beattie-Bogue present you with an opportunity to expand or diversify your audience -- and perhaps to recruit them into that audience and render them conversant on the Great Lakes' fragility?
Throughout her career Margaret has done a wonderful job of giving people the tools to get out and explore the lakes. My family has used her books for years. Hopefully my book will dovetail with hers to help readers appreciate the lakes on a whole new level.
On the eve of the Wisconsin Book Festival, how would you appraise the prospects for legislative and Congressional ratification of the Great Lakes Compact?
I've been saying 50/50. There's a lot of momentum at the moment in other states and Canadian provinces. Wisconsin has been lagging a bit, but things are just starting to get interesting here.
NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reported preliminary data early this month indicating that Lake Superior had set a record low water level for the month of September, 1.6 inches below the previous mark for September, set in 1926. Using a different gauging method, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the new record at four inches below the old mark. What was your reaction to these reports? How alarmed should we be -- and what can we do to reverse similar trends throughout the Great Lakes?
When I was writing my climate change chapter I asked all the experts, "When are we going to know when these water level issues are caused by climate change rather than natural variability?
"When we start breaking records," they said.
When water levels drop, water tension rises -- complicating water policy throughout the region.
Am I surprised? No.
By the way, the Corps' figure is the correct one.
Given how long it has taken global warming to gather public currency, how long might it take for people to recognize any alarms set off by advocates for the Great Lakes? If Great Lakes water levels continue to break all-time records, people are going to start talking about climate change a lot more.
To what or to whom do you ascribe your own passion for the Great Lakes?
Lake Superior. Hands down, it is the best place in the world.
What other book would you recommend as a complement to The Great Lakes Water Wars?
Cadillac Desert [Marc Reisner's book about dwindling water supplies in the American West]. That might seem counter-intuitive at first, but trust me.
What was the last book you read for fun that you would recommend -- and why would you recommend it?
I just finished Water for Elephants [Sara Gruen's acclaimed 2006 novel about a nonagenarian's memories of his life as a circus veterinarian]. It sucked me in right away and I couldn't put it down.