Photo: Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Who owns the water of

the Great Lakes?


Grade Level


Subject Area

research skills, reading comprehension, role playing, debate, decision-making skills


Ohio Standards for Science Education

Earth and Space Sciences
Grade 10 
5. Explain how the acquisition and use of resources, urban growth and waste disposal can accelerate natural change and impact the quality of life.
Grade 11 
11. Analyze how materials from human societies (e.g., radioactive waste, air pollution) affect both physical and chemical cycles of Earth.
13. Explain how human behavior affects the basic processes of natural ecosystems.
14. Conclude that Earth has finite resources and explain that humans deplete some resources faster than they can be renewed.
Grade 12
6. Describe how scientists estimate how much of a given resource is available on Earth.

Science and Technology
Grade 9
2. Identify a problem or need, propose designs and choose among alternative solutions for the problem.
Grade 11
2. Predict how decisions regarding the implementation of technologies involve the weighing of trade-offs between predicted positive and negative effects on the environment and/or humans.

Scientific Inquiry
Grades 9, 10 
Develop oral and written presentations using clear language, accurate data, etc.
Grade 11
5. Summarize data and construct a reasonable argument based on those data

Scientific Ways of Knowing
Grade 11 
8. Explain that the decision to develop a new technology is influenced by societal opinions and demands and by cost-benefit considerations.
10. Describe costs and trade-offs of various hazards.
Grade 12
8. Recognize that individuals and society must decide on proposals involving new research and introduction of new technologies. Decisions involve assessment of alternatives, risks, costs and benefits, and consideration of who benefits and who suffers...
9. Recognize the appropriateness and value of basic questions "What can happen?" "What are the odds?"

Length of Activity

Two or three 50 minute class periods

Materials Needed

Internet access
Main website (

Prior Knowledge Needed

Familiarity with the Internet; ability to read articles, summarize data and construct a reasonable argument based on those data


At the end of this activity, students should be able to:
  • Locate and label the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes states
  • Utilize the Internet to search for articles concerning water export in the Great Lakes
  • Gather information from multiple articles to create a viewpoint on water export (sorting out community viewpoints, recognizing this as an international issue)
  • Discuss/debate their viewpoint on the topic with other students in their class that may or may not share their viewpoint
  • Compile information from their resources and from peer’s debates to make a logical decision about whether or not to export water from the Great Lakes


Data Sets

Articles on Great Lakes Water Export/ Water Diversion/ Great Lakes Water Privatization/ Dropping Water Levels/Global Water Crisis:
and others found while researching on the Internet.

The Great Lakes Charter

Student worksheets 
The Adobe Acrobat reader (for opening .pdf files) can be downloaded (free) at


As water resources become depleted because of increases in the human population, the Great Lakes evolve as a site of possible public drinking water supply.   Current controversy over the Great Lakes has led to the question, “Should this water be privatized and sold for corporate profit or should this water be protected and preserved, with possible future export to those who are dying from lack of access to safe freshwater?”


The Great Lakes comprise 20% of world's surface freshwater; 95% of US surface freshwater. 

For more information, see for a list of  articles concerning water diversion from the Great Lakes.


1. Have the students study a map of the Great Lakes.  The students should label the Great Lakes and their major tributaries in addition to labeling states surrounding the Great Lakes and Canadian provinces surrounding the Great Lakes.  A great website for a map of the Great Lakes and their respective tributaries, states, and provinces can be found at:


2. Discuss the issue of water export from the Great Lakes.  Stress the following issues/questions:

  • international dilemma (other countries are in need of water, Great Lakes act as an international border between Canada and USA)
  • who owns the Great Lakes (is there really an answer to this question)
  • how will water diversion affect ecosystems (are the Great Lakes’ water levels too low already)
  • cost (pipeline, water companies, where will the money go/who gets the money)
  • should we bottle the water from the Great Lakes

The main website ( is a site with a list of articles concerning water diversion from the Great Lakes.

3. As a class, discuss the objectives for the question "Should we export water from the Great Lakes?" Some possible objectives include: relieve areas of drought, increase supply of bottled water, irrigate crops.

4. Give the students a role/viewpoint to research.  This will develop into a role playing debate/discussion.  Depending on your class size, this could be done individually or in small groups. Give students the student worksheet to keep track of their Internet research.

The following are some suggested roles/viewpoints. As a class, brainstorm to come up with ideas about what types of roles/viewpoints should be represented in the discussion. Who has a stake in this question? Once a list has been created, assign viewpoints to individuals or small groups. Be sure to assign a good variety of roles/viewpoints!

  • Water company for bottling Great Lakes water:
    • company superintendent
    •  company’s lawyer and/or financial analyst
  • Environmental company against water diversion of Great Lakes:
    • biologist/botanist – concerned about damage to ecosystems
    • geologists – concerned about water erosion due to varying water levels
  • Legislators for diverting water from Great Lakes
  • Legislators against diverting water from Great Lakes
  • Shipping industry against diverting water from Great Lakes
    • ship captain worried about navigation troubles
    • company spokesperson concerned about a decrease in the industry 
  • Small town council person(s) for water diversion
  • Economic analyst who is neutral in their position, but a representative of how water diversion/export could help and/or hurt the economy   
  • Representative from Canada 
  • Representative from United States 
  • Representative from Native American/First Nations governing bodies

5.  Allow the students to search for articles and information concerning their particular viewpoint.  The following websites will be useful as starters in their search.  Students should use student worksheets to record locations and points that support their role/viewpoint. 
You may want to suggest they start at the main website, which has links to other websites concerning water export. Also see Data Sets for additional articles/sites.

6. Once research has been completed for each role/viewpoint, have students present the viewpoint and supporting information they have found. Each student should use the table on the student worksheets to take notes on the different roles/viewpoints. 

7. As a class, make a decision on whether to export water from the Great Lakes or not to export water from the Great Lakes.  Prompt the students to debate their researched role/viewpoint with the class, be sure students argue from their assigned role/viewpoint.  

8. Ask the students to weigh the viewpoints.  Which argument would take precedence over another argument (would the legislator or the environmentalist have more weight in the decision-making process?).


After discussing the class decision, have the students reassess their value on each viewpoint.  Encourage them to alter any values they may have.  Would this change in value alter the final decision?  Why or why not?


Student participation should be counted as a large part of the assessment.  Click here for some great web resources on creating rubrics for use in the classroom.


Compare the types of information found in different types of publications (e.g. newspaper articles vs. Great Lakes dedicated Internet sites, or local Great Lakes papers vs. national papers). Discuss how and why viewpoints differ. Consider the sources of information in the articles, the author(s), the geographic region the paper/site is based, water needs in the area, dates articles were written and possible links to weather conditions at the time (drought, water logged, etc.). Can you find cases of the same scientific information being used to support differing opinions? 

References and Resources

Web Resources

The Great Lakes Directory
Ohio Department of Natural Resources
The Great Lakes Information Network
The Great Lakes Charter

Articles (others should be found while researching on Internet)


The Ohio State University School of Natural Resources, 2003
Web assistance by Ann Froschauer

Go to Student Page

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From Decision Making Activities for the Great Lakes, Who Owns the Great Lakes?
 Developed by the Ohio Sea Grant Education Program, The Ohio State University. 2003