Everyone knows that the southwestern United States and much of the western and Great Plains states are in deep trouble because of severe drought conditions. Less well known is the effect drought has had on the Great Lakes region, where each of the five great Lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario have seen reduced water levels, including the lowest water levels on record for Lake Superior Michigan and Huron.

Not surprisingly, the drought conditions in the Great Lakes region are causing both ecological and economic effects that threaten the region’s inhabitants, animal, vegetable and human.

The world’s largest freshwater system has shrunk before, but never so quickly. In Traverse City, Michigan, empty chaises at a resort—on what once was lake bottom—reflect how the Great Lakes tourist economy has slipped in sync with falling water levels. And the farther the waters recede, the higher anxiety rises. […]

This is not just a matter of inconvenience to a hundred thousand riparian landowners along U.S. and Canadian shores, though more than a few of them are being put to the expense of extending their docks. It is a matter of concern to the multitudinous cities and farms dependent on lake water, to the boating and fishing segments of the region’s multi billion-dollar tourism industry, and to the operators of deep-draft ships that ply these inland ports and waterways to hitch North America’s heartland to the markets of the world.

And right here the wide, weedy beaches and rocky shoals of the Old Mission Peninsula said it all: Another couple of years of climatic deprivation and the greatest of these lakes might well bottom out at levels lower than any recorded in historic times.

The impact is even being felt by America’s automotive industry. Why? Because ships and barges that carry iron ore and other raw materials to the automobile plants have had to lighten the amount they can deliver because of the lowered levels in the lakes or face running aground:

[A]s a consequence [of the drought], the big ships that carry iron ore to mills around the lakes are now being forced to lighten their loads – or risk running aground.

“When she came down with her cargo here – the last cargo in January – she was at the 25 mark. If she had been loaded to her full mark, she would have been up just an inch short of 28 feet,” said [Glen Nevaskil], vice president at the Lake Carriers Association – a trade group that represents shippers.

Last month CBS News went aboard the Stewart J. Cort in the Port of Milwaukee. As long as an aircraft carrier, the ship can carry 65,000 tons of ore.

“When this ship loaded its last cargo of the season, it had only 55,000 tons on board,” Nekvasil said.

If a ship is 10,000 tons of ore short, “that means a steel mill didn’t make about 6,700 tons of steel and that could have been turned into 8,400 cars. And 8,400 cars would keep a large auto plant working for 15 days,” he explained. “And you have to remember that’s on just one trip. These ships will make 45 to 50 trips during a season.”

The Great Lakes constitute the largest freshwater system on Earth, over 94,000 square miles, and includes enough fresh water in all the lakes tributary systems (rivers, streams, smaller lakes, etc.) to cover the entire surface of the continents of the Americas under two feet of dihydrogen oxide. It provides fresh drinking water for at least forty million people, and Fifty-Six Billion gallons of water per day for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses. Here are some other fun facts about the Great Lakes you ought to know:

Nearly 25 percent of Canadian agricultural production and 7 percent of American farm production are located in the Great Lakes basin. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

About 65 million pounds of fish per year are harvested from the lakes, contributing more than $1 billion to the Great Lakes economy. (The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

The Great Lakes support a $4 billion sports fishery industry. (The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

More than 200 million tons of cargo — mainly iron ore, coal and grain — are shipped every year through the Great Lakes’ 1,270-mile route. (The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory) […]

[T]he Great Lakes contain roughly 21 percent of the world supply and 84 percent of North America’s supply [of fresh water]. Only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water. (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) […]

More than 3,500 species of plants and animals inhabit the Great Lakes basin. (The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Since the 1800s, more than 140 exotic aquatic organisms of all types (including plants, animals, algae and mollusks) have become established in the Great Lakes. (Source: Great Lakes Information Network)

Needless to say, the sharp decline in the Great Lakes’ water volume is a very serious matter. So what is causing the incredible shrinking of the great Lakes? It’s simple really. Higher temperatures plus less precipitation equals greater evaporation of what is rapidly becoming the the most important resource in the 21st Century – fresh water.

Evaporation seems to be winning. By most accounts six of the warmest years on record in this region occurred in the past decade. That not only increased the rate of evaporation in the summertime but also raised it in the winter by depriving the lakes of their normal ice cover. Ice inhibits evaporation. With the exception of Erie, the shallowest of the five, the Great Lakes rarely freeze shore to shore but often ice up in their bays and mid-lake areas. In recent years, however, ice cover did not occur in some places accustomed to freeze or, if it did occur, came in later and went out earlier than usual, which raises the question of global warming.

Shorter winters, higher annual temperatures and less precipitation are all factors driving the Great Lakes drought. Water that the region depends upon to sustain both a healthy environment, drinking water and economic activity. It may seem to some in other drought effected areas of the country that all the Great Lakes’ water will be available if needed for them to tap when their own water resources run dry. Unfortunately, as the current drought up here demonstrates, Great Lakes water may not be that silver bullet that California, Texas and other drought stricken states may be counting on in the future should the severe drought conditions there continue. What will likely result will be political conflicts over who can use that water, which will be fought in Congress and, because we share the resource with Canada, on the international stage.

As Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars has amply documented, fights over who within the region served by the Great Lakes will be allowed access to its fresh water resources has already created intra-state and international conflict that have only been temporarily suspended as a result of the 2006 Great Lakes Compact. Here’s a short video in which Annin discusses the issues related to past and likely future conflicts over access and usage of Great Lakes water.

As he notes, we are in the Century of Water. And when drought occurs in one of the most globally important sources of fresh water, it impacts all of us, and that impact will only increase as the whipsaw effects of climate change in North America help create less and less usable fresh water throughout our country in the years ahead.