People arrived in the Great Lakes Basin about 10,000 years ago. By the 1500s, an estimated 60,000 to 120,000 aboriginal people lived in the area. The fertile soils, plentiful water and an abundance of wild game supported the native people, who took to the lakes and their tributaries in their birch bark canoes. In the north they mined copper, using rocks to hammer pure chunks of ore from the bedrock; this copper made its way by trade as far as present-day New York.
"Samuel de Champlain meeting Huron Indians"
By the early 1600s, explorers, missionaries and fur traders arrived; Lake Huron was the first of the Great Lakes to be seen by Europeans. French fur traders followed the water routes used by the Indians, traveling the lakes in their canoes and batteaux with loads of beaver and other pelts bound for east coast settlements and Europe. The French established trading posts and later military forts to protect the fur trade. The British followed suit, opening the way for eventual Euro-American settlement. The fur trade lasted until the early 1800s, followed after the end of the colonial era by a logging campaign that stripped vast areas of virgin forests from most of the watersheds, transforming the landscape and its hydrology for at least a century.
By the mid-19th century, the new American and Canadian governments began exploiting the region’s abundant natural resources, particularly for lumber production and mineral extraction. Most major tributaries to the Great Lakes were dammed to one degree or another to provide flood control and small-scale hydropower production.
Forestry practices and stream impoundments radically transformed tributary stream flow characteristics. Effects included reduced fish spawning habitat, shifts toward warmer stream temperatures, and increased sediment loading in rivers and streams feeding into the Great Lakes. The interconnecting waterways of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River were also radically transformed over the last 150 years by a steady increase in dredging, sand mining, hydropower development, and the construction and operation of outflow control structures for Lakes Superior and Ontario.
Aerial view of Muskegon, MI Harbor Entrance Channel
from U.S. Army Corp of Engineers
The Great Lakes economy is dominated by agriculture, shipping, fisheries, and tourism and recreation. During the last glacial recession 9,000 years ago, large quantities of sediments and fertile soils were deposited by the glaciers throughout the basin. Today, the northern portion of the Great Lakes Basin remains largely forested but the southern region has experienced metropolitan and agricultural development.
The term consumptive use refers to any quantity of water that is withdrawn from the Great Lakes system and not returned. Current consumptive uses of the lakes include drinking water for humans and livestock, irrigation, and industrial uses. Due to the large volume of water in the Great Lakes, consumptive use has only a minor effect on water levels.
Drinking Water Fountain from USGS
Municipalities throughout the Great Lakes Basin draw tens of billions of gallons of water per day from the Great Lakes to satisfy their public water supply needs. Public water supply systems provide water to homes, schools and offices, as well as to industrial facilities and businesses. In addition, millions of people in both rural and urban areas of the Great Lakes basin rely solely on groundwater. Groundwater is important to the Great Lakes ecosystem, serving as a reservoir that replenishes the lakes in the form of base flow in tributaries.
It is no coincidence that most of the region’s large industrialized urban areas are located on the shores of the Great Lakes, not only because of transportation advantages but because of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh water for domestic and industrial use. In fact, half of Canadian manufacturing and one-fifth of U.S. manufacturing is located along the region’s shoreline. The Great Lakes region accounts for approximately 60 percent of steel production in North America. The pulp and paper industry here also demands large quantities of water in its manufacturing operations.
Agriculture in the Great Lakes region is diverse and productive, and includes grain, corn, soybeans, dairy, and raising livestock. Unique climate niches have encouraged the cultivation of a multitude of specialty crops, including areas with excellent conditions for orchards and vineyards. Today, the agricultural industry grosses an estimated $15 billion dollars annually; about one-third of the land in the basin is used for agriculture, supporting nearly 25 percent of the total Canadian agricultural production and seven percent of U.S. production. Irrigation represents a modest but growing consumptive use of Great Lakes water. Water diversions and withdrawals for agricultural needs will likely increase as climate-driven changes in temperature and precipitation patterns increase.
Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants around the Great Lakes use water for cooling equipment and the production of steam to drive turbines. Less than two percent of these withdrawals are consumed—lost primarily through evaporation. The remainder is returned to the lakes.
Non-consumptive use refers to any water withdrawal or in-stream use in which the entire quantity is returned to the system. Non-consumptive uses of the lakes include transportation, hydroelectric power generation and water-based recreation.
Recreational Boating, Sport Fishing and Commercial Fishing
The Great Lakes offer outstanding tourism and recreation opportunities, ranging from wilderness areas such as Isle Royale, a U.S. national park, to waterfront parks in major cities. The eight Great Lakes states have about 3.7 million registered recreational boats, or about one-third of the nation’s total. Approximately one million recreational boats ply the U.S. waters of the Great Lakes each year. Commercial fisheries generated approximately $17.8 million in 2010 and the recreational industry generates around $4 billion annually.
Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge from EPA
One of the other major industries on the Great Lakes is shipping and cargo transport. The vast Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system links North America’s heartland with ports and markets throughout the world. Bulk cargo carriers, oceangoing vessels, and smaller cruise ships can all safely transit the St. Lawrence Seaway, stopping at any of the 15 major international ports or 50 of the smaller regional ports.
Approximately two billion tons of commercial shipping – mostly iron ore, steel, coal, or grain – passes through the St. Lawrence Seaway annually. Shipping and its associated industries support more than 225,000 jobs and gross an average of more than $35 billion per year for the region.
Hydroelectric power generation is by far the largest in-stream use for Great Lakes water. Hydroelectric production is dependent upon the “head” or difference between upstream and downstream water levels. During most periods, differences in these levels are relatively constant and power production is not significantly affected. During periods of significant increases in outflows from a lake, power production can increase substantially. The opposite is true under very low outflow conditions. Utilities also use coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power to produce electricity in the Great Lakes region.
Lake level changes are therefore one of the most important concerns for regional managers. Future water levels will affect shipping canals, ports, shoreline development and residential water supply and quality, as well as energy production at hydroelectric facilities.
Environmental effects of European colonization of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin are summarized in “The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book”, a joint publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada.