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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


The Cost of Free Water

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 10:22am -- Val Klump

One of the greatest challenges we face as a society in the 21st century is resolving the inherent conflict between human activity and environmental sustainability. Nowhere is this challenge greater than in the realm of fresh water.

Though many of the major issues of fresh water remain vague to the public, we do notice headlines about increased water rates—everywhere from Mayville to La Crosse, from Cambridge to Milwaukee, and beyond. But what the press and critics of rising water costs often don’t make clear is that these increases are to the costs of pumping, filtering, distributing, treating, and disposing of water. The water itself is absolutely free—you don’t pay a dime for the water. That’s not a bill—that’s a steal.

The value of water to industry, homeowners, farmers, etc. is pretty clear. Indeed, it’s not difficult to assign a value as it comes out of the pipe. On the other hand, the value at the opposite end of the pipe—the end that is in rivers, aquifers, lakes, and other sources of fresh water—and the value to these waters, is more challenging to estimate. Of particular focus to this post are the Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to 40 million people and supply industry, agriculture, and municipalities with 56 billion gallons of water—every single day. As such, I think we can all agree that the value is not zero. It is not zero. And therein lies a big problem: we are not paying that cost.

Great Lakes’ water provides drinking water for over 40 million people, and fuels the $1 billion commercial and $4 recreational fishing industries.

Great Lakes’ water provides drinking water for over 40 million people, and fuels the $1 billion commercial and $4 recreational fishing industries.

In the Midwestern United States we are uniquely blessed with these Laurentian Great Lakes—the largest freshwater resource on the planet containing nearly 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. I believe that we are taking these bodies of water for granted and mistaking them for a seemingly endless source of fresh water. This is not the case.

Despite their size these vast inland seas are surprisingly fragile. Our changing climate impacts everything from lake levels to ice cover and water temperatures to circulation and mixing. Over their recent history, this ecosystem has been hammered by invasive species. In the last 20 years alone, zebra and quagga mussels have reengineered the lower Great Lakes to such an extent that they have practically turned the food chain upside down. Their incredible filter-feeding capacity has sucked algae from the water column leaving the offshore waters of lakes Michigan and Huron virtual deserts. Without any natural predators in the Great Lakes, these invasive mussels flourish, eliminating an essential food source for many native species.

The algae growth in Lake Erie turns shorelines bright green, turning away swimmers, boaters, anglers, and others.

The algae growth in Lake Erie transforms the shorelines into a toxic, green algal soup, turning away swimmers, boaters, anglers, and others.

Simultaneously, nutrient runoff has triggered record-breaking harmful algal blooms in western and central Lake Erie, turning the waters into a toxic algal soup. In late summer of 2014, one of these blooms forced the shutdown of drinking water supplies to 400,000 residents in the city of Toledo. People were warned not to drink it, wash in it, or give it to their pets. Boiling the water would not help, so bottled water disappeared off store shelves overnight. The Governor of Ohio called on the National Guard to truck in water from communities as far away as Akron.

Additionally, summertime “dead zones”—regions of highly-depleted bottom-water oxygen—have reappeared in Lake Erie and now exist in Green Bay

Near true-color image of Green Bay from October 1999, showing the immense scale of the algal bloom in the bay. For more, see the Fall 2013 Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine article “Signs of Like in the Dead Zone.”

Near true-color image of Green Bay from October 1999, showing the immense scale of the algal bloom in the bay. For more, see the Fall 2013Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine article “Signs of Like in the Dead Zone.”

It is no surprise that few things are more important to the physical and economic well-being of our citizenry than the health of the Great Lakes. Few responsibilities are more sacred than the trust placed in us to protect and preserve these waters for future generations.

So, what can we do?

The environment subsidizes nearly every activity we undertake. But we often use these resources without paying. We dispose of waste into the environment—air, land, and water—without bearing the cost to the ecosystem. Regardless of how difficult those costs might be to determine, they are not zero.

The cost to restore the Great Lakes from the pollution and stress that we have already imposed is in excess of $20 billion—and probably considerably more. But there is also good news: economists conservatively estimate that financial support of Great Lakes restoration will yield two or even three-fold in economic returns. Not a bad investment.

So here is a suggestion: Put in your two cents. What if all of us paid two cents for every 100 gallons of Great Lakes water we use. It is practically peanuts. One option would be for this to be embedded within our water rates. In addition to the treatment and delivery, we’d also actually pay for the water. The average person uses 80-100 gallons a day—that’s a bit more than ten cents a week. 30-40 million people draw their drinking water from the Great Lakes. That’s $3-4 million per week, $200 million per year that could be used to support conservation, regulatory compliance, research, and restoration. It could provide the resources we need to answer the questions, “How do we ensure these lakes are managed sustainably? How do we monitor what is changing and what impacts our actions are having? What kind of protections and policies should we implement to ensure our great-great-grandchildren will have abundant, clean water?”

 As the primary research vessel of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, the Neeskay facilitates investigations on the Great Lakes’ ecosystems—and advances solutions to protect those systems.

As the primary research vessel of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, the Neeskay facilitates investigations of the Great Lakes’ ecosystems—and advances solutions to protect those systems.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism to do this now—nor is there an effort behind it. But, whether through our water bills or some other approach, we need to find a way to fund protection of the water essential to our lives by paying our fair share.

About 70% of the human body is made up of water. If your drinking water comes from the Great Lakes, you are, for all intents and purposes, made up of the Great Lakes more than anything else. So if we can find a way for all of us to put in our two cents, we will literally be paying it back to ourselves and our families. That's not only a good deal now, but an investment we must make.


J. Val Klump joined the Center for Great Lakes Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1980 and served as the Director of the Great Lakes WATER Institute from 2001 to 2011. He is currently a Professor and Dean of UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences. 

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