Spring 2005


UW Water Resources

A Measure of Our Thirst

Great Lakes region pilots national water use study

By John Karl

The Great Lakes region has been selected by the U.S. Geological Survey for a pilot study of the nation’s water availability and use, and much of the work will focus on Lake Michigan and its drainage basin, according to USGS scientists.

The study will look at water usage, groundwater recharge, and groundwater and surface water quantities and flow, said William Alley, chief of the USGS Office of Groundwater in San Diego, Calif.

Ultimately, the goal is to develop indicators that can help policymakers and planners assess the availability of groundwater and surface water throughout the country, added Dan Feinstein, a hydrologist at the Wisconsin district of the USGS who is heading the groundwater component of the study.

The study began in February, and work will continue for a year or more, Alley said.

The study will look at the entire Great Lakes basin, but much of the effort will focus on Lake Michigan, Alley said, in part because it’s the only one of the Great Lakes to lie entirely within the U.S. border, which simplifies some logistics.

A driving factor in selecting the Great Lakes region was that a lot of data have already been collected in the area, Alley said.

In Wisconsin, a “substantial part” of that work was funded through the Wisconsin Groundwater Research and Monitoring Program, according to Jim Hurley, assistant director of the UW Water Resources Institute. The groundwater program is a cooperative effort among the University of Wisconsin System (via the Water Resources Institute), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The pilot study will synthesize much of the data already collected in the region into a single, coherent picture of water availability and use throughout the Great Lakes Basin. It will not entail much original field work, Alley said.

Other reasons for choosing the Great Lakes area for the pilot study included the region’s water diversion issues and proposed revisions to the Great Lakes Charter, known as Annex 2001, several researchers said.

Annex 2001, which is currently being negotiated, would establish clear procedures for approving proposed withdrawals of Great Lakes waters.

As part of the pilot study, Feinstein and others will expand a ground­water model they developed for southeast ­Wisconsin. The new model will encompass the entire Lake Michigan basin, which constitutes roughly half the drainage basin of the entire Great Lakes, Feinstein said.

Development of the southeast Wisconsin groundwater model was largely funded by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

USGS originally requested $4.2 million from Congress to conduct two pilot studies. The second one was to be the lower Colorado River basin. However, Congress allocated only $1.2 million, making only one study possible. The agency is hoping to begin the Colorado and other pilot studies eventually, if and when funding permits.

For more information, please see the USGS report, “Concepts for National Assessment of Water Availability and Use.”



The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents