Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, offered the keynote speech at last month’s Michigan Ground Water Association convention. I spoke with him by phone shortly after the event, and got his thoughts on what the "century of water" might mean for drillers.
Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, offered the keynote speech at last month’s Michigan Ground Water Association convention in Acme, Mich. Annin serves as managing director of the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. He is a longtime journalist who’s covered topics ranging from environmental issues to domestic terrorism. Find out more about Annin, and order his book, from www.greatlakeswaterwars.com.
I spoke with Annin by phone shortly after the convention. He talks a lot about issues of water access and says, in effect, water is the new oil. Here, at last, is that interview.
Q. I have readers who might say, “I’ve never had a problem finding water, it’s just a matter of how deep to go. What do I have to worry about, water isn’t scarce?” What would you tell them?
A. I just think that even the trick for people who live in the Great Lakes, surrounded-you know-by 20 percent of the fresh surface water on the planet, is to let one’s guard down and not recognize that it’s a limited resource and that, even though we’re surrounded by abundance, that doesn’t mean that water frugality or water conservation is something that should be ignored.
Q. What’s the difference between groundwater and surface water? How strongly are they linked, and what might that link mean to groundwater professionals?
A. As I said in my talk, it’s a little bit awkward for me because I’m not a hydrologist, I’m not a scientist. You’re just talking to a dumb journalist here. But, you know, the scientists tell me that there are incredibly important synergistic links between groundwater and surface water and that we shouldn’t be looking at just one or the other, but that all water decisions should be looking at the complex relationship between groundwater and surface water. And, as you know, in the state of Michigan, this has been a huge issue with deciding a controversial issue regarding the siting of water bottling facilities and Michigan now has a really nationally significant tool-groundwater assessment tool-that I think in part has been born out of the groundwater concerns and controversy from the water bottling plants that have been open.
Q. Can you talk about current policy questions or proposals that drillers should be concerned with?
A. I think that the Great Lakes water compact treats groundwater and surface water the same because of that inter-relationship that we’ve talked about already. And the compact has kind of slipped to the back burner in the last few years, but it’s going to move back to the forefront again with Waukesha, Wisconsin’s water diversion application probably going out for public hearing, public comment around the Great Lakes basin sometime in 2013. It may spill over into 2014. And because the Waukesha application is directly resulting from over-depletion and natural contamination of its groundwater supply, I think the case will be of keen interest to your readers and, like any water document, the compact is sort of simple at face value but also complex.
It will be increasingly important for members of the water well drilling community in the Great Lakes region to familiarize themselves with the Great Lakes Compact, because depending on volume of applications, it could be relevant to their work.
Q. What can drillers do to be the best stewards of groundwater?
A. I think that because of the relationship between groundwater and surface waters, and the fragility particularly of coldwater surface water systems for species like trout, sturgeon, etc., during the breeding season for sturgeon, (that) keeping in mind the impact that groundwater extraction can have on surface water, particularly cold water surface waters, is I think a really important stewardship idea for the drilling community to be aware of.
Q. We cover both water and energy drilling. There’s a lot of recent concern over fracking. Can you talk about how that practice plays into the greater picture of water availability?
A. Obviously, fracking has become highly controversial, and the studies of that continue. It’s controversial, not just in the Great Lakes region, but all over the country, and I think the confusion remains. I think that a lack of transparency in the industry is contributing to that confusion and the transparency comes from the industry not wanting to-for corporate proprietary reasons-not wanting to release the ingredients that go into their fracking (solutions). And so we’re in this period right now where there’s a lot of questions about whether or not government, because of the popular concerns, can force industry to be transparent, or whether industry will just become more transparent. But all of that’s created a lot of confusion among the public about the environmental concerns about fracking. And there are a lot of important questions that have not been answered, and certainly have not been communicated to the general public.
I think for industry in particular, the cost benefit analysis of that lack of transparency is a really important question for them to consider. It’s bringing a lot of negative attention to the industry that might go away or may not go away with greater transparency.
I think for some people that would help. If they just knew what was going in, that would help–for some. Others are, you know, going to be opposed to it for other reasons besides what’s in the fracking cocktail itself. This is a new technology that’s created a lot of concern. I think that there’s been a bit of a rush into it, which also creates a lot of concern, and there’s been a lack of transparency, and a lack of really good authoritative science by objective entities about what some of the impacts are going to be and have been.
Good, solid independent science would probably go a long way toward resolving some of the questions and concerns that people have.
Q. The oil industry uses high-tech methods like GPS and seismic surveying. Can you talk about how these might be applicable to finding water? If they are applicable, will these methods become more common for water drillers as water becomes more valuable?
A. I think that, you know, we’re leaving the century of oil. We’re entering the century of water. Water scarcity is going to drive the debate. Even in water-rich regions of the world, there’ll be water scarcity that’ll either be driven from a regulatory standpoint or from regional scarcity within a water-rich region, which is what we’re seeing in the Milwaukee to Chicago corridor. There’s regional scarcity of groundwater there, which is putting pressure on diverting water from the Great Lakes. Scarcity drives demand for technologies that can help combat that scarcity. I would not be surprised at all in coming decades if we were to see some of the current drilling technology you’re seeing in oil and gas being used to locate water supplies. The cost-benefit analysis there will be on how much that costs, as opposed to transporting water from far-flung areas.
Now, with the Great Lakes Compact, you’re not going to be able to transport long-range water. But I was just talking to a scientist yesterday from Chile who is developing these massive, large, towable membrane bags behind vessels to transport fresh water around the world. Then, of course, the other factor is desalinization. So the technologies could be in recycling and reuse-toilet to tap-and we could be competing against the drilling technologies. So, toilet to tap, diversion technologies, desalinization technologies, all those kinds of things, a lot of the cost in that is energy. If there’s a magic renewable method found to reduce energy cost, then suddenly desalinization becomes a much more realistic alternative for coastal communities, etc.
So, I think there’ll be a lot of different water technologies pursued and developed, and the cost benefit analysis could vary by geography and accessibility. If desalination turns out to be great option in the future and you’re a coastal community, then you’re in great shape. If you’re an inland area known for water scarcity, like say parts of Wyoming or South Dakota, then obviously desal isn’t necessarily going to work unless you have plentiful groundwater that has high salinity, which is the case in a lot of places around the West.