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Great Minds, Great Lakes


Social Studies

The Journey of the Great Lakes



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Where Would We Be Without the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes are part of our daily lives. They provide us with fresh drinking water; industries and jobs including agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, shipping, and tourism; and beautiful shorelines and parks. This section explores how we depend on the Lakes and the many ways we use them.

The Great Lakes provide us with fresh water for just about any kind of activity you can imagine. Today, there are approximately 37 million people living in the Great Lakes basin and more than 26 million of these people rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. Most of the original settlements, which grew into cities, were established near tributaries that provided a supply of fresh water for domestic and industrial use.

How much water do these 26 million people use in a day, a year, their lifetime? The Great Lakes contain about 5,500 cubic miles of water. If a person took 3 baths a day, it would take over 110 billion years to use all the water in the Great Lakes! IF all 26 million people took 3 baths a day, it still would take 4,254 years to use all the water in the Lakes.

Many people don't realize it, but resources in the Great Lakes Basin are responsible for the quality of our lives. So much of our lives depend on the Great Lakes' rich farmland, abundant fish, water power, transportation, and natural beauty.

Within the 201,000 square miles of the Great Lakes Basin, 67,000 square miles are devoted to agriculture-- area larger than each of the bordering states except Minnesota. The main agriculture products produce in the region today are wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, and oats. Grapes are grown in the Lake Ontario region for wine-making in New York. The Lake Michigan area contains the most farmland of all the Great Lakes and is a leading grower of fruits and vegetables. The State of Wisconsin is known for its cheeses and other milk-products. The Lake Erie region leads the Great Lakes in the raising of pigs, sheep, soybeans, wheat, and chicken corn. The Lake Huron Basin is the world's biggest producer of navy beans, and the Lake Superior region is an active forest products producer.

Great Lakes fish are an important source of food for people and hundreds of species of animals and birds. The average annual commercial fishing catch is approximately 110 million pounds. Major species caught in the Great Lakes include whitefish, yellow perch, lake trout, salmon, walleye, lake herring, rainbow smelt, chubs, white bass, brown bullhead, and carp. One of the most prosperous fishing areas is Lake Erie, where the walleye pike fishery is widely considered the best in the world. In Canada, the Lake Erie fishery represents nearly tow-thirds of the country's total Great Lakes harvest.

Shipping has been responsible for the development of the entire Great Lakes Region. The Great Lakes and their interconnecting channels have provided a natural transportation system for exploration and settlers, and trade and transport of goods--particularly mineral resources and agricultural products. Boom towns have come and gone as shipping enabled natural resources to be reached and transported, and today shipping continues to be a major industry on the Lakes. Iron ore from the Lake Superior area is shipped to mills in Chicago, Cleveland, and Gary to be made into steel. This steel is then shipped to Detroit automakers. Among the other products transported on the Lakes are coal, limestone, grain, newsprint, and cement. In 1959, completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway drastically changed the Great Lakes shipping industry by expanding it to include international transport.

Many manufacturing industries are attracted to the Great Lakes area because of the advantages of being near a water source which provides cheap electricity and convenient transportation routes. Major manufacturing industries in the Great Lakes region include steel, paper, chemicals, and automobiles. Thirty-six percent of the United States automobiles and 38% of Canadian automobiles are produced in the Basin. The steel industry is concentrated at he southern end of Lake Michigan, and in Detroit, Cleveland, and Lorain, Ohio. Paper mills are located primarily in the upper Lakes, with a large concentration of mills along the Fox River that feeds into Green Bay on Lake Michigan. Chemical manufacturers are on the Niagara River, the Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron, and Sarnia, Ontario.

Tourism and recreation also are major industries in the Great Lakes Basin. For example, in Ottawa County, Ohio, the regular population of 40,000 increases to about 250,000 on weekends as tourists come to enjoy the sights in many areas of the Basin, small unprofitable marinas have been turned into multimillion dollar complexes with stores, restaurants, and swimming pools. Sport fishing also is a major component of the recreation industry. The sale of licenses, equipment, and boat rentals generates hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Charter fleets and a large fish stocking program have been developed to fuel the industry. Over 60 million people each year visit the 98 state parks, 39 provincial parks, and 12 national parks on the United States and Canadian Great Lakes shores.

When we consider the benefits we gain from all of these industries in the Great Lakes Basin, it is important to remember that each of these industries have environmental consequences.


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