Are there long-distance water pipelines emanating from the North American Great Lakes region? Why or why not? Under what circumstances would this be an ecologically reasonable way to provide water to other parts of the continent? How would the ecological impact of this compare with desalination or other methods?

I ask this because I live in a water-rich area (not near the Great Lakes), and I'm used to thinking that I do not need to place a high priority on saving water, because any water I use will recharge downstream water systems, and that my upstream water systems will recharge over time as well.

However, if it would be socially/ecologically good to send water from my upstream water systems to other people, then the importance of building good water habits and practices would be higher, to prepare for the time when we start sending water out across the continent.

1 Answer 1


I can provide an answer for the first part of the question: No new water diversions out of the Great Lakes region are allowed.

Great Lakes water agreement

The 2005 Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement prohibits diversion of water from the Great Lakes outside of the Great Lakes Basin:

Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin

The compact is an agreement between the U.S. states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania; and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec.

There are only three exceptions to the restriction on diversions:

  • Communities that straddle the Basin divide
  • Intra-Basin transfers
  • Communities in counties that straddle the Basin divide

Since 2005, only one exception has been approved, for Waukesha, a Wisconsin city straddling the basin whose own water supply was found to have high radium levels. As part of the exception, Waukesha has to return the water back to Lake Michigan after it has been treated, so that there is no net loss.

Existing Chicago River diversion

One diversion out of the Great Lakes basin already existed prior to the agreement (source):

The Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River system is the only major diversion out of the Great Lakes Basin.

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In the 1880s, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed to address problems with the sewer system, carrying water out of Lake Michigan and eventually to the Mississippi River. Other states complained about this, concerned that it would lower the lake level, and eventually a 1967 Supreme Court Case capped the outflow at a daily average of 3,200 cubic feet per second (about 91,000 L) (source).

As a condition for entering the compact while maintaining the Chicago River diversion, Illinois is not allowed to request any additional diversions.

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    Does Chicago no longer take water out through the river ? They reversed a river flow well over 100 years ago to take water out instead of putting it into Lake Michigan ( to carry away sewage instead of dumping it into the lake like Milwaukee ). Jan 12, 2021 at 19:42
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    Burns Harbor Indiana was also able to take water out ( and put it into the I & M Canal system ) or put it in depending on water levels. Jan 12, 2021 at 19:46
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    I don't know if it qualifies as "long distance " but the city of Chicago takes " a lot " of water out of Lake Michigan and sells it to suburbs up to 70 miles away. Jan 12, 2021 at 19:50
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    Most of this info can be found under "Chicago River" ( my computer skills are poor ).. They have changed the name of the I & M canal system , but it still connects to Burns Harbor , they just make it difficult to get the information. Jan 12, 2021 at 20:10
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    @blacksmith37 good point. I looked into this a bit -- see this article. Basically, in exchange for being able to continue to divert water out of the lake via the Chicago River, Illinois is not eligible to take any future exceptions.
    – LShaver
    Jan 12, 2021 at 20:45

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