The Story of the Last Great Supply of Fresh Water on Earth

Name this place: It has the third largest industrial economy in the world. It contains 22% of the world’s fresh surface water. It has 35,000 islands, and is sometimes referred to as the “Third Coast” of the U.S.. 35 million people depend on it for their survival. And it’s nearing “irreversible collapse”.

Photo: clairityWater Lilies
Water Lilies

The place I’m referring to is the Great Lakes.

In a new documentary, Water Life, director Kevin McMahon takes us into the heart of this incredible natural feature of Canada and the U.S., covering the pressures, problems, and issues affecting its watersheds and ecosystems.

Water Life follows the grand journey of the Great Lakes waters as they run toward the Atlantic Ocean, from Lake Superior to Chicago and beyond. The story of the last great supply of fresh water on Earth is told through the power of amazing imagery and narratives, and is accompanied by a soundtrack that includes music by Sam Roberts, Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Ros, Robbie Robertson and Brian Eno.

The gist of the film?

The Great Lakes are sick. Dying, maybe.

These majestic bodies of water are under assault. By invasive species. By toxins. By dropping water levels. By sewage. And by perhaps the most powerful enemy of all, apathy. People don’t know about the seriousness of the situation, and they don’t connect it with their own personal life, much less the economic health of their community.


“While people who live on Lake Superior will still drink straight from the lake, the majority of people who live on Lakes Erie and Ontario are afraid to even swim in them.” – McMahon

60 of the top scientists involved in Great Lakes research issued an unprecedented statement in December 2005, arguing that the Great Lakes’ ecosystem is enduring so many stresses that it may be nearing “irreversible collapse”. The scientists said that this collapse will probably come not a continued slow decline but a sudden crash.

And the International Joint Commission (established by the two federal governments to deal with cross-border water issues) has recently released a preliminary report on dropping water levels in the Lakes that was unequivocal, saying:

“Climate is the main driver of the lake level relationships between lakes and over time. There has been a persistent decline in net total supply of water to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron over the past two decades that has resulted in declining lake levels and a change in the relationship to Lake Erie.”

McMahon says: “My journalistic hope for Water Life is that it will alert American and Canadians to the extreme threats facing the great body of water they share.”

Be sure to check out the excellent NFB interactive site for Water Life.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize for a Canadian Feature from HotDocs 2009, the film premiered on August 25th and will play in Toronto, at NFB Cinema, through the 27th. Water Life has been released on DVD in Canada, and other screenings will be in Midland, ON, Mission, BC, Barrie, ON, West Vancouver, ON, and Wolfville, NS. For more information about screenings, and the trailer, visit

Written by Derek Markham

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  1. Thanks for raising awareness about the Great Lakes, Derek. I’ve lived near them my whole life and they are stunning and majestic. They are so large that people think we can’t impact them (hmph – like climate and the oceans). Clearly we are.

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